The OED and "adulterous" & "adultery"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Sep 12 19:24:23 UTC 2009

At 10:30 AM -0400 9/12/09, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>The OED (1989) defines "adulterous" solely in terms of "adultery"
>--  "1. Pertaining to, or characterized by the practice of adultery"
>(senses 2 and 3 are not relevant here).
>It defines adultery (also 1989) as:
>"1. Violation of the marriage bed; the voluntary sexual intercourse
>of a married person with one of the opposite sex, whether unmarried,
>or married to another ...
>"b. Extended in Scripture, to unchastity generally ..." (Again,
>omitted portions and sense 2 are not relevant.)
>But "adulterous" was not only "extended in Scripture, to unchastity
>generally".  It was extended in colonial New England not to
>"unchastity generally" -- that was "fornication" or "uncleanness" --
>but to unchastity by or with a married person.  This can be seen in
>the reports of numerous legal cases where adultery was suspected or
>charged, but not proven, and "adulterous conduct" found
>instead.  (Where both parties were single, adultery was not charged
>and "adulterous conduct" not found, only "fornication".)
>Can a change in the definitions be expected when the OED gets around
>to the (black and white) A?
By black and white, do you mean published, on paper?  Is that
actually going to happen?  I thought I recalled from somewhere the
decision to stick with online versions for the foreseeable future.

The problem with "adultery" is related to the earlier problem (now
resolved) with "love"; the heterosexist bias persisted through the
1989 revision but seems to be under repair in the newer entries being
written now, which will eventually get around to A.   (Scarlet
letters don't necessarily come first.)


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