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The Scarlet Letter

Q: In your blog item a couple days ago about the pronunciation of “adult,” you said the word comes from the Latin adultus, the past participle of adolescere. Do “adultery” and “adulterate” come from the same root?

A: Good question, but the answer is no. The words “adultery” and “adulterate” are derived from the Latin verb adulterare, which means to pollute, while “adult” comes from adolescere (to grow up).

In the 14th and 15th centuries, we had several Gallic-influenced words for what we now call “adultery”: “avoutrie,” “advoutrie,” “aduoutrie,” and so on. But by the end of the 15th century, both the French and the English were using words derived from the Latin adulterare for what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a “violation of the marriage bed.”

For example, the first complete English translation of the Bible, the Wycliffe version of around 1382, uses the term “auowtrie,” but the later Geneva translation of 1560 uses “adulterie,” according to the OED.

When “adulterate” first showed up in English (in 1531), it meant to debase or corrupt things, pretty much what it means today. The first citation in the OED refers to someone who “adulterateth his coin, with a more base metal.”

But Shakespeare uses the word in King John (1595) to refer to debasing people: “She adulterates hourly with thine uncle John.” I’m surprised that Shakespeare’s use of the word didn’t catch on, since we don’t have a common verb these days for committing adultery.

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