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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.

11 Comments

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

    churches don’t have rhetoric

    Reply
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Thomas Validation -  February 26, 2014 - 12:08 am

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

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

    Greate article

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

    love is blind as one fall on it

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

    Hmmm…

    Reply
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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

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