Seven-year itch

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jul 9 12:04:30 UTC 2011

In 1992 Safire published an article about the phrase "seven year itch"
that included a discussion with the playwright of The Seven Year Itch,
George Axelrod.

Cite: 1992 March 29, New York Times, The Seven-Year Itch by William
Safire, Page SM16, New York. (ProQuest)

Here is an excerpt from the essay that Michael Quinion has probably
already seen, but other list members may find interesting.

I reached Mr. Axelrod in Los Angeles to find out what the phrase meant
when he titled his comedy.

"At the time of the play, it was a kind of nonmedical term for a skin
disease," he replies, "not, perhaps, unlike 'the Chinese zing,' and
had never been used in, to use your phrase, a 'marital wanderlust'

How did he come across this Americanism? "I was writing jokes for a
hillbilly comedian called Rod Brassfield," recalls Mr. Axelrod, "who
starred with Minnie Pearl on the 'Grand Ole Opry' radio show." Mr.
Brassfield liked cow jokes: ...

"One of his favorite lines was: 'I know she's over 21 because she's
had the seven-year itch four times!' That hideous line," says Mr.
Axelrod, now 69, "was running through my head when I was desperately
seeking a title for the play I had just finished that was free from
cow jokes forever.

"In the first draft, the guy had been married 10 years (as had I) but
the title, when it came, had a natural ring to it and I changed the
number of years the hero had been married accordingly.

(End excerpt)

I could not find an earlier example of "seven year itch" referring to
an adulterous desire. So I looked for precursors. Here is an example
in 1939 in which the phrase "seven years of itch" is used to refer to
a desire for change, I think. This is a shift in meaning from the
sense of "disease" and the sense of "recurring phenomenon."

Cite: 1939 July 8, Editor & Publisher, Holman Renews Contract; To Do
New Daily Panel by Walter E. Schneider, [Reprinted at the Stripper's
Guide website which covers the history of the American newspaper comic
strip] (Not verified directly in Editor & Publisher)

For the next two years I drew no crowds but plenty of drawings. My
strip act laid an egg, the art editor threw it at me and I was on my
way to New York.

"After seven years of itch and drawing a kid comic for the New York
Herald-Tribune I entered the magazine field. The following five
freelance years were happy and profitable.

Here is an example in 1942 with the phrase "itch for adultery." This
instance does not contain the expression "seven year itch", but it
does serve as a precursor.

Cite: Circa 1942, The perilous night: a novel by Burke Boyce, GB Page
244, The Viking press. (Google Books unverified; data may be
inaccurate; WorldCat agrees with date)

They eat frogs an' chase women. There won't be a bed or a haycock left
alone with them around. They got a regular itch for adultery. Why,
there's one of 'em loose down south now, dancin' master or some such


On Thu, Jul 7, 2011 at 8:08 AM, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Seven-year itch
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Axelrod undoubtedly coined the expression as a fancifully humorous
> reinterpretation of an old phrase.
> If the Sandburg quote were a valid illustration (and it doesn't really seem
> so) one would expect to find at least one more ex. between 1936 and 1952 -
> if not before 1936.
> There is also the tangentially related phrase "slower than the
> seven-year('s) itch," which HDAS-on-a-parallel-world has from 1929 and 1930,
> GB from (at least) 1910.
> JL
> On Thu, Jul 7, 2011 at 5:24 AM, Stephen Goranson <goranson at> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       Stephen Goranson <goranson at DUKE.EDU>
>> Subject:      Re: Seven-year itch
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> America's Historical Newspapers
>> Ohio Statesman, page [4], col. 5 vol. I, iss. 115
>> March 26, 1839, Columbus, Ohio, Advertisement
>> Dr. Mason's Indian Vegetable Panacea....for the cure of....also, that
>> corruption
>> so commonly known to the western country as the scab or seven year Itch,
>> &c.
>> Stephen Goranson
>> ________________________________________
>> From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
>> Michael Quinion [wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG]
>> Sent: Thursday, July 07, 2011 4:30 AM
>> Subject: [ADS-L] Seven-year itch
>> A subscriber to World Wide Words asked about the origin of "seven-year
>> itch" (or "seven-year's itch"). John Ayto, in the Oxford Dictionary of
>> Slang, dates the sexual sense from 1936, but I've not been able to find an
>> example before the title of George Axelrod's play of 1952.
>> Might Ayto have been referring to this:
>>  1936 C. Sandburg People, Yes 112 'May you have the seven-year
>>  itch,' was answered, 'I hope your wife eats crackers in bed.'
>> though this seems to be a reference to the discomfort of the disease.
>> Safire asserted that the sexual sense was an invention of Axelrod's.
>> My subscriber quoted Walden (1854) in the original sense of a form of
>> scabies, which is the earliest in the OED. I found this some years ago:
>>  1845 Wisconsin Herald and Grant County Advertiser (Lancaster,
>>  Wisconsin), 4 Oct. 1/2 [page number uncertain] When Illinois
>>  caught Mormonism of Missouri, she caught something worse than
>>  the seven year itch.
>> Can anyone better either of these?
>> --
>> Michael Quinion
>> Editor, World Wide Words
>> Web:
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society -
> --
> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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