Making love

The Google Ngram viewer allows any user to search the database of Google books for single words and phrases. This thing is well nigh irresistible, and I don’t do such a good job resisting temptation to begin with. I decided to run through it some of the terms that are relevant to my research. For those of you who don’t know about my research, just fax me an affidavit that you are at least 18 years old before you read any further. For everyone else, just a reminder that I am investigating the social structure of adolescent sexuality in the 20th century. Some of that structure makes itself known through language, through the terms that people apply to their practices, rituals, norms, and ideas.


Consider item one here, the term “going steady.” No doubt this phrase can appear in places where it would not refer to steady dating, but none of these come readily to mind. I think this will generally be attached to the kind of adolescent courting that we associate with lettermen’s sweaters and fraternity pins in the 1950s, and to songs like “Leader of the Pack.” As we might expect, the term hardly appears at all in the 1920s, when dating anyone twice in a row risked loss of social status. By the mid-1930s the term begins to increase in frequency and rises rapidly through the Pat Boone era until about 1958. The actual practice probably grew in advance of the frequency of use of the term, since the Ngram tracks uses in books, i.e., uses by adults who are observing and writing about and condemning the practice. How much condemnation? Sex educators almost unanimously advised against the practice, and religious leaders condemned it. A friend of mine (a few years older than me) swears that the nuns at his parochial school taught that going steady was a mortal sin. It was certainly the case the some dioceses forbade the practice in parochial schools. Why forbid it? Place your orders now with Amazon for my book.


But here is the second exhibit, and the motivation for this note. I track the term “making love” from 1700 to the present. As you can see, this term gains a clear hold on literary usage about 1740 and continues slowly but steadily to increase in use. What interests me here, though, is the shift in meaning attached to this term. Any reader of Jane Austen knows that 19th century British (and this applies to Americans as well) used the term as an equivalent to a kind of courtship. I’m sure many of you reading this will have read far more Victorian literature than I have, and can refine my definition. But my impression is that in the 19th century this term meant something a bit more serious than flirting, but still referred to talk.


Of course, most people of my generation (the Baby Boom) and after will relate “making love” to having sex. I don’t have a huge load of data about this, but I do have another Ngram chart, this one tracking three terms which are not precise equivalents today but certainly overlap: “making love,” “having sex,” “fucking.” Since use of “fuck” in a book would have had it banned in Boston (and everywhere else) early in the century, we can’t be surprised that the frequency of use remains negligible until about 1960. “Having sex” seemingly appears even less, then at about the same time starts to gain in use. I think a clear and rapid shift in meaning came to “making love” in the 1960s with the phrase “make love not war.” By that time, making love had become associated with the freer (perhaps I should say “freer”) sexual practices of the counter culture. Certainly, beginning in the 1960s many taboos of language were abandoned or else renegotiated, so that sexually explicit terms appeared everywhere. This does not clear up for me why “making love” would have nearly the same meaning as “fuck,” but today, whatever meaning attaches to “making love” includes sexual intercourse.

My other lingering question about the term has to do with an earlier shift in meaning. I think I’m correct in saying that “making love” went through an intermediate phase where it referred to a couple’s mutual caresses, what was usually termed “petting” at the time or (less frequently) “necking.” I even have some vague memory that the phrase was being used that way in the 1960s, but I was too young myself then to have had anything to do with that kind of thing. I’d be grateful for any observations from among my well-read friends as to their impressions of this term.

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