English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

Must a love affair include sex?

Q: I wrote to the New York Times the other day concerning the Sept. 16 obituary of the actor-playwright Jerome Kilty, who wrote a play based on the correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. I pointed out that the obit spuriously described their platonic relationship as an affair. A Times editor responded that an affair does not necessarily have to involve sex. Your thoughts, please?

A: The short answer is that you’re both right. There are good arguments to be made on both sides of this dispute, which we can’t settle one way or the other because dictionary definitions of “affair” disagree on whether sex is involved.

Technically the Times editors are correct, if having the Oxford English Dictionary on your side makes you right.

The OED defines an “affair” in this sense as “a romantic or sexual relationship, often of short duration, between two people who are not married to each other.”

So the OED would agree with the Times that Shaw’s passionate yet nonsexual liaison with Mrs. Campbell, described in Kilty’s play Dear Liar, was an “affair.”

In its definition of the word, the OED adds that specifically the relationship is “(a) one that is carried on illicitly, one or both partners being involved in a relationship with another person; (b) an intense sexual relationship.”

The dictionary adds that the word can mean “a sexual encounter of any of these types.”

However, we must say that most if not all of the OED’s citations for the published use of the word sound as if something is going on between the sheets. You can judge them for yourself.

Oxford’s earliest example is from William Congreve’s play The Way of the World (1700): “I got a Friend to … complement her with the Imputation of an Affair with a young Fellow, which I carry’d so far, that I told her the malicious Town took notice that she was grown fat of a suddain.”

When a woman’s “affair” results in sudden weight gain, one suspects sex was involved.

Here are the OED’s other citations:

1732: “In our Dialect a vicious Man is a Man of pleasure … a Lady is said to have an affair, a Gentleman to be gallant, a Rogue in business to be one that knows the World.” (From George Berkeley’s philosophical dialogue Alciphron.)

1762: “Why, then, do you pursue your affair with Araminta; and not find some honourable means of breaking off with her?” (From William Whitehead’s play The School for Lovers.)

1825: “Ovid … discovered some incestuous affair in the imperial family, and was banished from Rome for life.” (From the Encyclopedia Londinensis.)

1888: “I shall let the liaison run its course—it will be very amusing & not as costly as an affair with a regular horizontale.” (From a letter by the English poet and novelist Ernest Dowson, describing a singer he had picked up in a music hall.)

1933: “We could carry on a backstairs affair for weeks without saying a word about it.” (From Noel Coward’s play Design for Living.)

1965: “The story of his affair with Mother. … It’s hot stuff, as we used to say at school.” (From David Lodge’s novel The British Museum Is Falling Down.)

2005: “What kind of a sophisticated guy in his fifties doesn’t have an affair? It’s basically mandatory.” (From Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty.)

You see what we mean. The bulk of those references appear to be sexual rather than romantic.

The use of “affair” to mean a romantic or sexual relationship was preceded by the longer phrase “affair of love,” described by the OED as now somewhat archaic.

“Affair of love,” first recorded in 1574, is defined as “(a) a matter or experience connected with love,” usually used in the plural, or “(b) a romantic or sexual relationship between two people in love.” It can also mean “a sexual encounter.”

A term first recorded in 1710, “affair of the heart,” is defined in the OED as “a matter concerning romantic love; a love affair.”

And “love affair,” dating from 1767, is defined as “a romantic or sexual relationship between two people in love.”

By the way, the faux-French phrase “affaire d’amour” would be meaningless in France, where an affaire is a business deal, not a romance.

As we write in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, “affaire d’amour” is simply a froufrou version of “love affair.”

Getting back to your question, an “affair of the heart” does sound as if it could be an innocent romance, conducted fully clothed. But we think most people would assume an “affair” or a “love affair” has a sexual component.

However, we can’t support this with solid evidence; it’s mere intuition, which doesn’t count for much.

Standard dictionaries are split on the issue of whether the principals in an “affair” are actually having sex.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “affair” in its romantic sense this way: “A sexual relationship between two people, especially when at least one of them is married or in another committed romantic relationship.”

The Macmillan Dictionary, in both its American and British editions, agrees: “A sexual relationship between two people, especially when one of them is married to someone else.”

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has this broader definition: “A romantic or passionate attachment typically of limited duration.”

And Webster’s New World College Dictionary (the Times’s house dictionary) also takes a broader view: “An amorous relationship between two people not married to each other; an amour.”

So the word “affair” will have to be allowed to retain some of its mystery.

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