Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Making Love

I was listening to “Siriusly Sinatra” yesterday when they played Jo Stafford singing Make Love to Me, one of her big hits in the mid-50s. The song struck me as a little raunchy, a sense quite out of place in a song so simple and simplistic.

As I tried to resolve this conflict of impressions, it dawned on me that “make love” means something quite different today than it meant in the mid-50s. Back then this phrase referred only to making out, canoodling, petting, cuddling up with someone you love, just hugging and kissing.

So what happened? Well, the pill happened and the major impediment to “going all the way” melted away. As it did, it pushed the meaning of “make love” all the way to what it implies today.  Very different notions of boy-girl relationships.

In our Good Word series, I like words that tell us things about ourselves and our history. Words that reflect our prejudices, values, and ideas and especially how they change. Since this is a phrase, I decided that the blog is a better place to mention this one.

8 Responses to “Making Love”

  1. Neal Whitman Says:

    I’ve had the same reaction when I’ve listened to older songs or seen it in books from the early 20th century: “Are they actually referring to having sex?” Your explanation is plausible and appealing, but do you have evidence for it? The OED has 1927 for what it deems its earliest attestation of “make love” in this sense, though the earliest indisputable one is from 1950: “One of the Carvers made love to her and she had a baby.”

    I also hear the refrain “feel like makin’ love” in a classic rock song of the 70s, and wonder what sense is intended there, since by that time the idiom was well established (or at least, established enough for my parents to have used it with me in talking about the facts of life).

  2. Robert Beard Says:

    It may have started out in California–or England–in the 50s but it went nationwidein the 60s. I have several ear-witnesses as proof. I, for one, made love in both decades both ways.

    I was living at the time in the more prudish South and I am sure that had an impact on the interpretation of all terms relating to physical contact between people of differing s-xes.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    It’s pretty easy to spot in Victorian novels – say, Trollope – when “make love” is used in contexts that clearly mean nothing more than verbal exchanges. For instance, from The Duke’s Children:

    Very little was said between Silverbridge and Miss Boncassen which
    did not refer to the game. But Lady Mabel, looking on, told herself
    that they were making love to each other before her eyes.

  4. Robert Beard Says:

    Hmmm. In those days, I don’t think proper ladies and gentlemen made love even in the original sense before marriage. Wonder if the phrase devolved from “making eyes” at each other.

  5. Gordon P. Hemsley Says:

    The same change appears to have happened to “hooking up”, as well, albeit in a much smaller time period.

    Only a few years ago, the phrase meant the same as the meaning you cite for the 1950s’ “making love”. Now, it apparently has progressed much farther, into the 2010 definition territory of “making love”. It is, however, on quite the opposite end of the emotional intimacy spectrum.

  6. Perry Lassiter Says:

    I still hear “hooking up” in the sense of meeting and going along with. “My bro hooked up with his pals downtown and went joy-riding.

  7. word smith Says:

    F Scott Fitzgerald often refers to the term in his short stories from the 1920’s era. Clearly his debutante’s are experiencing romance through conversation, flattery, perhaps light petting. Agreed that the meaning of “hooking up” progressed in the same fashion but at a much quicker pace.

  8. David Says:

    Much like the term “gay”, “making love” seems to have shifted meaning during the mid-20th century. By the 1950s, “make love” seems to have acquired a sexual connotation among the younger demographic (particularly high school kids) but it still retained the older sense of “courting” in the general culture–as evidenced by its continuing use in that more innocuous sense in popular culture. Even as late as 1960, 20th Century Fox released a major musical called “Let’s Make Love” starring Marilyn Monroe. Given the conservative production and advertising codes still in force in that era, it’s unlikely a mainstream movie could have carried that title if the term was considered primarily sexual, though it probably communicated a racy “double meaning” that audiences could pick up on.
    By 1964, though, the line “making love” was deemed to sexy for radio play and consequently The Drifter’s hit song “Under The Boardwalk” was banned from some radio stations and had to be censored: they re-recorded a radio-friendly version which changed the line to “falling in love”. So the precise cultural “tipping point” in which the term acquired an explicitly sexual meaning in American culture seems to have occurred sometime between 1960 and 1964.

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