"Making love"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Apr 10 17:48:18 UTC 2002

At 11:11 AM -0500 4/10/02, Majors, Tivoli wrote:
>Hi all!
>I got a query today from a collegue who teaches 19th century fiction. Her
>students are concerned about the use of the phrase "making love" in the
>fiction of that era. Today, the students are quite taken aback by the term
>because of its link to sexual activity, but my collegue says that in the
>19th century fiction, the term was quite innocent with a meaning akin to
>"romantic activity" instead of anything sexual.
>Does anyone know approximately when this shift in meaning occurred or do you
>have any other information relating to this phrase?
>As always, any information is much appreciated!
One way of tracking the euphemistic progress of'"make love" is that
in the first edition of the OED (1933) the relevant gloss (see under
love, 7g) is 'to pay amorous attention to, to court, woo', but by the
second edition (1989) the gloss has been revised to 'to pay amorous
attention; now usually to copulate'.  This is of course an almost
inevitable shift, given the culture--and not just in English-speaking
domains.  The same development characterizes its French analogue,
"faire l'amour", and compare also French "baiser" (orig. 'to kiss',
whence the current French noun "(un) baiser" '(a) kiss', but now only
= 'to fuck').

You can check the OED glosses to see the shift in "make love", but
they will leave you with a gap between a clearly "innocent" use in
1860 ("How often..do we make love to the charms of cousins and
avuncular expectations") to a just as clearly euphemistic one in 1950
("One of the Carvers made love to her and she had a baby").  The
shift obviously occurred somewhere in between, but it would be nice
to pin it down a bit more narrowly.  At the same time, we'd expect to
find a period of overlap, where the euphemistic and "innocent" senses
could both have been used before taboo avoidance (a.k.a. Gresham's
Law) kicked in and rendered the innocent use impossible.

One of my favorite cites in the current OED entry for "make love" is
the last one:

1971 Daily Tel. 15 Jan. 17/1 Couples who make love frequently are more likely
to have sons than those who do so less often.

--to which my first response is "Yes, and they're also more likely to
have daughters".


P.S.  For extra credit, just how many cultural presuppositions are
built into the penultimate cite?

1967 B. WRIGHT tr. Queneau's Between Blue & Blue xiv. 151 When you
make love on a bunk,..the man has to bump his head.

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