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The Lost Language of Love and Courtship

courtship, dancing

To modern ears, the following excerpt from Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, published in 1869, sounds risqué. Trollope writes:

It is not pleasant to make love in the presence of a third person, even when that love is all fair and above board; but it is quite impracticable to do so to a married lady, when that married lady’s sister is present.

As shocking as those sentences might sound to us, readers in Victorian times would have thought nothing of it. No, this scene does not refer to a sexually voyeuristic experience for the “third person.” Rather Trollope writes of chaste courtship, the variety traditionally exercised in sophisticated 19th-century society, often with a chaperone present.

As Fraser Sutherland notes in his essay “Why Making Love Isn’t What It Used to Be,” the term make love has undergone a semantic shift over the last several centuries: “In English the phrase early on both referred to wooing and to sexual intercourse…Yet euphemistic usage was firmly entrenched by the early seventeenth century, and remained so into the early twentieth century.” In Victorian times, the popularity of the euphemistic sense reflects the cultural niceties of a characteristically subdued society. It wasn’t until the 1920s that make love reverted back to its physical sense, which had receded into the fringes of the English language. During an era of female empowerment marked by the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, make love regained its somewhat forgotten carnal connotations, starting in the United States. This semantic change is not an isolated incident. Sutherland also notes that the term lover experienced a similar shift in these same periods.

By the time the phrase “make love, not war” arose as a 1960s anti-war slogan, the Victorian parlor-room-appropriate courtship connotations of make love had long since morphed into something more sexually explicit. Of course in this context, make love also stands in for peace and compassion. For younger generations make love is a loaded expression. While some use it sincerely, others find the use of make love to be sickly saccharine and roll their eyes at its overly sentimental quality.

Next time you pick up a Victorian novel involving courtship, keep in mind the evolution of the phrase make love over time. Though these books might be more tame than some readers might have previously thought, there’s still plenty of scandal, intrigue, and passion within their pages.

33 Comments

  1. Aki -  October 14, 2014 - 8:49 pm

    Awesome!

    Reply
  2. said kellaa -  October 2, 2014 - 7:05 pm

    ok my be this is your imagination

    Reply
  3. Flambie -  July 19, 2014 - 5:47 am

    Lovely

    Reply
  4. Flambie -  July 19, 2014 - 5:44 am

    I love this

    Reply
  5. Lajand -  July 3, 2014 - 6:15 am

    I think the author unequivocally hit the nail on the head on this sacramental phrase. Without waxing poetic, the value of it has since been lost and gone with the winds and blown into the waters a very long time ago.
    On another note, I would like to get your take on another topic: do people truly marry for love or they misconstrued love for secured future instead.

    Reply
    • Aki -  October 14, 2014 - 8:45 pm

      Yes ina way u r correct .most of the lovers get into marriage nt bcuz of love but on the basis of a secured future and a luxurious life

      Reply
    • Aki -  October 14, 2014 - 8:48 pm

      Analytical & detailed & awesome

      Reply
  6. ELIJAH-JACOBS -  July 1, 2014 - 10:58 pm

    likng the article

    Reply
  7. Saket Suman -  June 26, 2014 - 10:21 am

    This is the best article.I hope in future release this type article.

    Reply
  8. Amb. Otu -  June 11, 2014 - 12:13 am

    Wow what a scope

    Reply
  9. Mahad -  June 7, 2014 - 6:13 am

    With the 1st I agree, but in several instances sisters are given a different room to avoid such ashaming incidents. I think a phrase make love is one of which are in-built within any person by a reason of his humanity. So, its not crazy within its literal meaning unless a given society’s or individual’s mind or ideology is corrupted by lust.

    Reply
    • Max -  August 27, 2014 - 9:34 pm

      Very well said

      Reply
  10. Tony -  June 6, 2014 - 2:13 pm

    This blog is finding a soft spot in my heart.I must admit am loving all these articles and if you keep up with the good work,my stay is guaranteed.

    Reply
  11. Aileen -  May 25, 2014 - 5:27 am

    Wonderful article

    Reply
  12. Aileen -  May 25, 2014 - 5:24 am

    Wonderful article!

    Reply
  13. Aileen -  May 25, 2014 - 5:22 am

    Wonderfl article

    Reply
  14. Isabella -  May 12, 2014 - 9:11 am

    This was an interesting topic…

    Reply
    • Gong -  May 21, 2014 - 9:27 am

      Absolutely interesting one!!!

      Reply
  15. the church -  March 4, 2014 - 6:02 pm

    churches don’t have rhetoric

    Reply
  16. Douglas -  March 4, 2014 - 11:06 am

    I’ve often wondered in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life”, when Donna Reed’s character yells, “He’s making violent love to me, Mother!”, how that was an acceptable thing to say in 1947. Clearly, it was used to mean “making out” as well as the completed consumptuous carnal act.

    Reply
  17. Andrew -  February 26, 2014 - 9:54 am

    Robyn, my argument was that an anecdotal example of a product sold in a catalog doesn’t set the tone of the times. This is evidenced by the fact that this product, while used for recreational purposes today, was used for medical purposes (a phrase that I use loosely) during the period in question. Your list of examples of this “medical” usage seems to lend my point credibility.

    To address your other point, I’d compare politicians of Victorian times who wanted sewing machines banned because they provoked immoral thoughts to their modern counterparts who don’t want girls vaccinated for HPV because it would encourage them to have premarital sex. They both would seek a society wherein conversation on anything below the belt is limited to the church’s rhetoric.

    Reply
  18. Thomas Validation -  February 26, 2014 - 12:08 am

    Hopefully there will be some more articles like this published in the future.

    Reply
  19. Thomas Validation -  February 26, 2014 - 12:06 am

    Greate article

    Reply
  20. elias mtambalike -  February 22, 2014 - 7:26 am

    love is blind as one fall on it

    Reply
  21. wolf tamer and iron miner -  February 22, 2014 - 3:07 am

    Hmmm…

    Reply
  22. robyn -  February 15, 2014 - 5:38 am

    andrew, YOUR logic is flawed. doctors did a booming business treating ‘hysteria’ with vibrators and ‘uterine adjustments, manipulations and message’ some politicans wanted treadle sewing machines banned because they provoked immoral thoughts

    Reply
    • Gladys -  June 25, 2014 - 4:19 am

      The Lost Language

      Reply
  23. Andrew -  February 14, 2014 - 2:44 pm

    Jennifer, your logic is clearly flawed if you assume that a few freaks selling sex toys in a catalog set the zeitgeist for the entire era. I’d also point out that, in Victorian society, vibrators were primarily used by doctors as a treatment for “hysteria.” Recreational use was much less common, and certainly much less frequently discussed.

    Reply
  24. Carly -  February 14, 2014 - 12:01 pm

    If you’re looking for some ‘gutter’ poetry, you need look no further than John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester (Particularly his ‘A Letter From Artemesia in the Town to Chloe in the Country’). If you thought the Victorian’s had dirty minds, look back to the 17th century to see where it started growing!

    Reply
  25. Jennifer -  February 14, 2014 - 7:10 am

    Referring to the Victorians as a “characteristically subdued society” shows a lack of historical knowledge. They invented the vibrator and sold it in mail-order catalogs. They were not repressed nor subdued by any means. Though the above excerpt almost certainly refers to wooing a lady, the author may have used it specifically knowing that the reader would be savvy enough not to allow his mind to go straight to the gutter and would understand that he/she intended the more chaste meaning.

    Reply
    • optmuis -  September 2, 2014 - 6:20 am

      awesome

      Reply

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