Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"No word for adultery"

In the current (May 16) New Yorker, a review of Sarah Vowell's "Unfamiliar Fishes" describes early missionaries to Hawaii as
... wan New Englanders confronted with a people whose language lacked a word for adultery. (Their approximation: "Mischievous mating.") 
The "no word for adultery" is Vowell's conceit, apparently, and I haven't tried to check its accuracy. But what immediately struck me is that "mischievous mating" is about a million times more descriptive than "adultery." How did a word like that come to mean "illicit sex with a married person?"

(Now I'll go look it up.)


T. Roger Thomas said...

This sounds like a job for...





(Cue the dramatic music and spotlights)

Nancy said...

It appears that good Republicans have no word for adultery, either. See the final graf of this story about Mr. and Mrs. Newt Gingrich:

>>"They're a great couple," she said, "that had a nontraditional start."<<

Source: http://nyti.ms/iS02Fj

Kay L. Davies said...

Wikipedia says there is also "philandery", a word I've always associated with run-around males, but might be assigned to run-around mates in general.
Unfortunately, Wikipedia also says some amazingly dumb things, including "adultery is voluntary, while rape is not"! Um, the rapist is acting involuntarily, eh? I don't THINK so.
Now, do we believe Wiki when it comes to etymology? Hmm. It says adultery comes from the Latin "adulterat" which means "to pollute" — I like that — but it refers to women who commit adultery, not to men.
So, there are two words, then? "Philandering" for a male adulterer and "polluting " for a female?
I think "mischievous mating" is a better term than adultery anyway. Good for the Hawaiians!
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

John Cowan said...

Same as adulterate; adultery is corruption of the marriage relationship by introducing an ingredient seen by the other spouse as improper and undesirable. No connection to adult; the former's Latin root is alterare 'alter', the latter's is alere 'nourish'.

Jonathon said...

Adultery comes from a Latin word meaning "to corrupt" (ad- + alterare) and has no connection to adult.

The Old English word was æwbryce, meaning "law breach", referring to marriage rite.

Ø said...

The word "mischief" may connote naughtiness in a wink-wink way, but at one time it seriously meant wrongdoing.

Jimbo said...

Well the Old English word is legalistic and misses all the drama so clearly the Hawaiian version is the hands-on, gender neutral expression-with-drama

Jan said...

@T. Roger: Indeed! But the beauty of the blog is that other people will look it up even faster than I could!
@ Ø -- I was interested in the historical senses of "mischief" too, so I looked that up after "adultery," and it has had the wink-wink sense ("childish naughtiness") since 1675 and the "charmingly roguish" one since 1761. I know I try to calibrate my sense of the gravity of "mischief" according to the source, but it's been ambiguous -- or versatile, at least -- for quite a while.

Ø said...

The nearest thing that English has to a word for "a man getting married" actually means "a woman getting married, a man who takes care of horses".

John Cowan said...

The -groom in bridegroom is historically unconnected with the word groom in any of its other senses. It is a modification of ?goom, descended from Old English guma 'man' but now obsolete.

Ø said...

I know, John. My tongue was in cheek. I thought every body would know I knew, because Jan had just written about "groom" -- but I now see that that was in her column.