The Grammarphobia Blog

Making love, then and now

Q: I’ve been reading a lot of Agatha Christie stories lately, and I’ve noticed that she uses the phrase “make love” to denote the earliest stages of a relationship—perhaps kissing, hugging, and so on. Now, it means a sexual relationship. Comment?

A: Yes, the verbal phrase “make love” has evolved, along with social and cultural attitudes about lovemaking.

The noun “love” is very old, of course, dating back to the early days of Old English, when it was written lufo, lufu, or luuu, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes similar words in Old Frisian (luve), Old Saxon (luba), Old High German (luba), and other Germanic languages.

The British, as we’ve written before, have invented some whimsical ways of referring to  “love,” spelling it “lurve,” “luurve,” “lerv,” “lurv,” and “lurrve.” But that’s another story.

In its earliest days, the noun “love” referred to a feeling of affection or fondness or attachment.

The phrase “make love” first showed up in English in the late 16th century, according to published references in the OED, influenced by similar usages in Old Occitan (a Romance language) and Middle French.

In its original meaning, the dictionary says, to “make love” meant to “pay amorous attention; to court, woo. Freq. with to.” Although the phrase is still used this way, Oxford says the sense is now “somewhat” archaic.

This is the sense of “make love” you’re seeing in those Agatha Christie stories. Here’s an early example of the usage, from Love for Love (1695), a comic play by William Congreve:

“Nay, Mr. Tattle, If you make Love to me, you spoil my design, for I intended to make you my Confident.”

The OED’s most recent citation for this sense is from Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, a 1991 collection by Sandra Cisneros: “Ay! To make love in Spanish, in a manner as intricate and devout as la Alhambra.”

In the early 20th century, however, to “make love” took on a new sense that Oxford defines this way: “orig. U.S. To engage in sexual intercourse, esp. considered as an act of love. Freq. with to, with.”

The dictionary’s first written example of this usage is from Sex, a 1927 play by Mae West: “Jimmy embraces Margie LaMont and goes through with her the business of making love to her by lying on top of her on a couch, each embracing the other.” (The OED citation is from a 1997 collection of Mae West plays edited by Lillian Schlissel.)

We’ll end with an example from George Orwell’s 1934 novel Burmese Days: “Why is master always so angry with me when he has made love to me?”

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