[Press & Publications] Sex and Semantics: The Language of Love

February 2000

No 20


Newspaper columns across the country are likely to be filled today with terms of endearment ranging from snooglebum to Bambam.

The words we use for each other speak volumes about the changing nature of social and sexual relations, according to a new study by the University of Leicester.

Dr Julie Coleman, of the University Department of English, found that although we may be more explicit about sex in the words we use - we are much more likely to use words that disguise our emotions.

In her study Love, Sex and Marriage, A Historical Thesaurus, - which is an offshoot of the Historical Thesaurus Project at the University of Glasgow - Dr Coleman charts the use of words relating to this field from before the Norman Conquest to the modern day. She found:

  • We are now more likely to use words that are childish or insulting to express love. For example, the names of characters from children books and TV programmes are often used as terms of endearment.
  • The word for boyfriend was 'bully-boy' (1609) or shiner (1859) while a girlfriend was a lady bird (1592) and the word free-lance (1933) meant a woman who was unattached.
  • Words we use do not distinguish between being married or single - reflecting the declining significance of marriage.
  • Said Dr Coleman: "From 1585 onwards, there was even a word that pointed to an illness that afflicted women who were unmarried. 'Greensickness' was the name which stems from the characteristically pale or greenish tinge it gave the complexion.

    "It was associated with the desire to eat chalk, brick-dust, charcoal and coal - and was considered to indicate the urgent necessity for marriage."

    Sex itself has been described in numerous ways: 'filth' (1225), melling (1375), venus-work (1400) flesh-fondling (1558), poop-noddy (1606), what thy grandam loved (1674), deed of darkness (1893) jiggery-pokery (1994).

    Dr Coleman said: "The extensive vocabulary of the field demonstrates that sex is a subject that causes social anxiety, but also a subject we like to talk and write about.

    "I found that historical periods tend to favour terms with different connotations. For instance, the twentieth century tends not to favour terms emphasizing the link between sex and procreation. The nineteenth century produces a limited selection of terms indicating that sex is pleasurable. Terms implying that sex represents a form of joining or commitment are characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon period".

    Dr Coleman said that it might be easy to assume that our predecessors did not discuss sex - but it is more likely that intervening generations have determined that the discussions should not survive.

    She points to a few smutty riddles surviving from before the Norman Conquest which is all that remains to indicate Anglo-Saxons saw sex as at all pleasurable.

    The techniques used in the riddles are the same that today grace the saucy seaside postcards and the Carry On films!

  • The day for choosing a sweetheart - St Valentine's Day - has existed since 1381, and was believed to be the day on which birds chose their mates for the rest of the year, although the term 'Valentine Card' was first recorded in 1959.
  • Note to newsdesk: For all media calls before February 14, please ring the Press Office - 0116 252 3335. Please note Dr Coleman will not be available for calls on Feb 10 and 11.

    On February 14, Dr Coleman will be available on 0116 252 2635.

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    Last updated: 04 February 2000 16:27
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