Early in It’s A Wonderful Life, a young George Bailey goes to Mary’s house and they sit on the couch. George is grumpy. He can’t wait to get out of Bedford Falls. Mary gazes at him, a puppy in love.
Mary’s mother — who doesn’t much care for George Bailey — calls down to her from upstairs. “Mary, who’s down there with you?”
“It’s George Bailey, mother.”
”George Bailey? What’s he want?”
“I don’t know,” Mary answers. She turns to George. “What do you want?”
“Me?” George says to Mary. “Not a thing. I just came in to get warm.” George stands and turns away.
Mary cups her hand to her mouth and shouts upstairs. “He’s making violent love to me, mother.”
Mother is not impressed. “You tell him to go right back home. And don’t you leave the house, either.”
The first time I saw this scene, I thought, zowie! That’s spicy for 1946! But then I realized that while the phrase “making love” has a clear meaning today (for the benefit of the ESL students among you, it is the act of sexual intercourse) a literal reading of its two components shows it is vague to the point of meaninglessness. Its clear meaning today is entirely something we read into it — so it could easily have had different meanings in the past.
Writing about It’s A Wonderful Life the other day reminded me of that line so I thought I’d look into the history of “making love.”
Turns out I was right.
The earliest reference to “making love” in the OED dates from 1622.
The meaning then, and for centuries after, was less kinetic and more romantic: To “make love” was to flirt and whisper sweet nothings. At its most passionate, it was to profess one’s ardour for the angelic visage one’s eyes are blessed to behold. “Making love,” in other words, was pitching woo. It was decidedly not the act known as fadoodling (1611), horizontal refreshment (1863), or poguing the hone (1719). Or to put this in terms best-suited for my very literate and high-minded readers, “making love” was emphatically not what Shakespeare called “making the beast with two backs.”
That said, there is something of a logical nexus between pitching woo and making the beast with two backs, so it’s understandable that the phrase began a slow transformation of meaning. It’s all the more understandable that the transformation began in the 1920s.
While Baby Boomers like to believe they invented sex in the 1960s, the smart set in the 1920s threw off smothering Victorian uptightery and embraced an unprecedented sexual explicitness and exploration. D.H. Lawrence , not surprisingly, was one of the first to turn the pleasant and respectable “making love” into something more biologically urgent. (A much less bold choice was “John Thomas,” the moniker Lawrence’s protagonist in Lady Chatterley’s Lover gives to his eager appendage. It is dull, pedestrian, only marginally better than “Jerry.” And “Jerry,” readers will recall, was the name of the penis attached to Warren G. Harding, the insipid president whose most notable accomplishment was making the beast with two backs in an Oval Office closet. )
For several decades, the two meanings co-existed, with context letting readers and audiences know which was intended. Mary was clearly using the old-fashioned sense when she let her mother know what George Bailey was up to.
Ambiguity was still possible but with a little imagination one could usually work out what was intended. In 1958, for example, Somerset Maugham wrote this:
Her lover Diego no longer came to the window at night to make love to her through the iron grille.
Maugham gave the reader no indication that Diego is, well, physically remarkable, so it seems clear this love-making is old school.
But as the years proceeded, the words-not-deeds version of “making love” slowly disappeared. By the 1970s, sightings of it were as rare as a virgin hippie.
This placed a cultural divide in the language. Watch an old movie like It’s a Wonderful Life, or read an old newspaper, and you may find yourself suddenly going wide-eyed.
A good example comes from the Ogden Standard-Examiner, published in Ogden, Utah, in 1922:
Spokane, Washington, March 24 — Young people should be encouraged to make love in church, Dr. Ewen C. Brown of Los Angeles, editor of the Adult Publications of the Baptist church, declared in an address at a Baptist church conference here last night.
Remarkably open-minded of the pastors.
Then there is a 1924 series of syndicated newspaper columns entitled (in caps, naturally) HOW GREAT MEN MAKE LOVE. Ever wondered how Stonewall Jackson made love? I had not until I read a headline promising to reveal all. Alas, the columns are simply passages from love letters. (Which was for the best when the series got to Benjamin Franklin because, as admirable as Franklin was, he was tubby and bald and not at all a man one wishes to envision making the beast with two backs. Which he often did, by the way. With an astonishing variety of partners. The man was a satyr.)
In extended dialogues, the change in meaning can be exhausting.
Consider this gem, published in the Buffalo Courier, 1925:
“I cannot make love to you anymore,” explained Andrew earnestly. “I have passed that point. Once I could find words to tell you how much I thought of you, dear, but never again. My vocabulary has not kept pace with my love. Every day since I've known you I have loved you more. When you came into my life a long time ago I began to love you like the dawn just streaking the east. As the sun rises higher flooding the whole world with light so as my love for you crept higher and higher. Until now it is just all of me. My horizon is just you. You are the standard by which I measure all your sex only to find them far short of the measurements and for you alone. I — “
“Please, that's enough,” interrupted Imogene wistfully. “It is too much in fact.”
“Well, for the love of Mike,” exclaimed Andrew. “What do you mean?”
“It was too glib, too good. It was like one of your public speeches. The metaphor and your flowery language are there but that isn't the kind of lovemaking that pleases any woman who knows anything. You are making love through your knowledge of the language, not to me. When a man really makes love to a woman he stutters and stammers and says things he doesn't intend to say and takes them back and says something less appropriate in their place. Your lovemaking shows too much experience to be spontaneous when you search your vocabulary instead of your heart.”
Imogene concludes with advice for Andrew. In modern eyes, it is possibly the oddest pairing of sentences in the history of the English language:
“You know how awkwardly a duck scratches its ear and how often it stumbles and sits down in the attempt? That's the way a woman likes a man to make love to her.”
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The author professes surprise to learn that 'making love' used to mean professing one's romantic intentions (or pitching woo), not sexual intercourse. Did Dan Gardner never read Emma? Or Gone With the Wind?
Hi, I can't comment on the other post since I am not a paid subscriber yet. So if you contact substack, embedding video is a beta feature. However, you can apply to be a part of the beta test. You have many subs and helped write some incredibly popular books (I am looking forward to the new one and I am 80% confident it will be equally mindblowing).
Anyway, I know some people with three posts got access to video embed, so you should have no problem. Hope that helps.