when "intercourse" got funny

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Wed Sep 27 12:30:46 UTC 2006

Some months ago it was observed that there was a time when the word "intercourse" could be used with a perfectly innocent meaning. Now, of course, its denotation has narrowed so drastically that it is impossible to use the word in nonsexual contexts without eliciting counterproductive, muffled guffaws.

  Just when the innocent era came to an end is not clear, but the benchmark in my own memory is 1964 when mention of the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 caused such wordless mirth in my co-ed high-school American History class that Mr. Callahan had to tell us to get serious, that's what they called it.

  And yet, also in 1964, the novelist and critic George P. Elliott was publishing the following sentence in which he attempted to characterize the novel as a genre :

  "The content of the [ideal] novel as here defined is intercourse among a few credible characters and between them and the reader, who knows them by their public actions, their intimate words, and their unrecognized impulses."

  Elliott was born around 1920. Could the shift have occurred so late in his life that he didn't realize the umhilarity in what he was writing ?  Or was his mind clouded by his doctorate in literature ?

  When did "intercourse" get funny ?


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