English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Making love, then and now

[Note: This post was updated on April 3, 2022.]

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.

Originally, the dictionary says, to “make love” meant to “pay amorous attention; to court, woo.” It’s frequently used with “to,” the OED adds.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from George Fenton’s 1567 translation of a discourse by Matteo Bandello: “The attire of a Cortisan [courtesan], or woman makynge loue [making love].” The passage refers to the sort of clothing worn by a flirtatious or amorous woman.

This old meaning was extremely common for many centuries and is still found today, though the OED labels it “Now somewhat archaic.” This is the meaning of “make love” that you’re seeing in those Agatha Christie stories.

The dictionary’s most recent example is from Sandra Cisneros’s story collection Woman Hollering Creek (1991): “Ay! To make love in Spanish, in a manner as intricate and devout as la Alhambra.”

The newer meaning of “make love”—to have sex—didn’t appear in writing until the 1920s. This sense of the phrase is defined in the OED as “to engage in sexual intercourse, esp. considered as an act of love.” It’s frequently accompanied by “to” or “with,” the dictionary says.

This usage was originally American, Oxford says, giving this as the earliest known example:

“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.” (From a police detective’s 1927 court deposition in an obscenity trial. It’s quoted by Lillian Schlissel in a book she edited and wrote an introduction for, Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag, The Pleasure Man. All three plays, written by Mae West and staged on Broadway in 1926-28, were closed by the police.)

Nearly a century later, the new meaning has almost eclipsed the old one.

We’ll end with an OED citation from the Daily Telegraph (London, Jan. 15, 1971): “Couples who make love frequently are more likely to have sons than those who do so less often.”

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