Why is it called “adultery” when being unfaithful isn’t a particularly “adult” thing to do?

A celebrity marriage mystery has raised some very grown-up questions about the words we use to talk about love, commitment and desire.

Gossip-mongers have been transfixed the past few days by the curious romantic situation of three TV stars: Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men” wed Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live” (the guy who plays President Obama) in 2009 after a whirlwind romance. In the past few days Armisen has been spotted with fellow “SNL” cast member Abby Elliot behaving like more than friends.

This isn’t “People” magazine or “Dear Abby,” but perhaps we can use this salacious scenario as an excuse to look at a dilemma of language that is as enigmatic as the state of this celebrity marriage: the complexities of “adult” and “adultery.” How can such similar words have such different meanings?

Remarkably, the answer is that the words don’t share a common ancestor. “Adult” comes from the Latin verb adolescere, “to grow up, mature.” Students of Latin will understand what we mean when we say that adultus is the pluperfect of adolescere. Adultery, on the other hand, derives from a French word, avoutre, which in turn evolved from a distinct Latin verb, adulterare, “to corrupt.” The verb adulterate, “to debase or make impure by adding inferior materials or elements,” stems from the same source.

The sense of “adult” that means pornographic emerged as a kind of  reverse assumption that adult and adultery have more direct links than they do.

Let’s look at the dictionary definition of adultery: “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his or her lawful spouse.” In fact, there are two types: single adultery (with an unmarried person) and double adultery (with a married person.) Here is the definition of adult: “having attained full size and strength; grown up; mature.”

What conclusions can we draw regarding relationships from these twists of etymology? Maybe that a real-life definition of adult is the condition of being responsible for our choices, and that the choice of whom to love and honor is probably the most adult decision of all.

(On the topic of “Mad Men,” do you know what the “mad” in the title stands for? Here’s the answer.)

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  3. louis paiz -  December 15, 2010 - 10:27 am

    i think that the meaning is different than what all of us think.adultered is a change of state from pure into a second class when someone put water to milk that product is adultered and the one that does it is an adulterer.i dont think it has to do with the states of the human been such as infant adolecent and adult. it has more to do with the changing of a sacred union such as is marriage into something different.thank you

  4. bonne' -  August 26, 2010 - 3:49 am

    hey a!!
    thanks for the correction there:)
    cheers woman!

  5. Ferpius -  August 23, 2010 - 12:31 pm

    Good question Al. One for the collection.

  6. alfa -  August 22, 2010 - 4:26 am

    Being adult is not corrupted but is able to calculate.

  7. alfa -  August 21, 2010 - 10:21 pm

    The idea of faithful marriage as an adult is fine.

  8. a -  August 21, 2010 - 6:13 pm

    also i think people who have it in them to be unfaithful to someone they claim to love r either very confused or simply incapable of love in either case they’e just sad souls worthy of nothing but pity

  9. a -  August 21, 2010 - 6:11 pm

    bonne … u misunderstood wat i said :) my point was exactly wat u r saying. Notice the question mark in the quote u used. Like i said earlier being childish has nothing to do with being unfaithful. and i agree completely that beig unfathful is not forgiveable

    ….also i’m a woman :) and i’m sorry wat i wrote upset u so but obviouly u just misunderstood me

  10. detective Columbo -  August 21, 2010 - 5:56 pm

    Have someone to cherish and love; thoughts stand alone.

  11. hearing an owl hooting -  August 21, 2010 - 5:45 pm

    An adult by definition presumed in this article is responsible. Feeling of moments anewed is life. Being responsible and being adolescent are not exclusive. Adultry helps the aging people feel alive but not too productive overall whereas adulteration could work without debilitation as adultery might cause.

  12. Richard Comaish -  August 21, 2010 - 12:21 pm

    I think there may be a teutonic influence creeping in in defining ‘adultus’ as ‘corrupted;’ other Europeans may prefer a translation more akin to ‘fortified.’

  13. Alan Turner -  August 21, 2010 - 12:00 pm

    Do infants have as much fun in infancy as adults do in adultery?

  14. Joe Schmidt -  August 21, 2010 - 10:31 am

    adultus is he pluperfect of adolescere????
    Any Latin lover around to correct the gentleman?

  15. hksche2000 -  August 21, 2010 - 10:17 am

    “Students of Latin will understand what we mean when we say that adultus is the pluperfect of adolescere.”
    Better students of Latin know that adultus is the “participium perfectum = past participle” of adolescere, (i.e. adolesco, adolevi, ADULTUM). Pluperfect would be adoleveram :)
    Gotta love Latin!

  16. noyb -  August 21, 2010 - 9:29 am

    A good book related to this topic is “Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World” by Nicholas Ostler (ISBN 978-0-06-093572-6).

  17. Mari -  August 21, 2010 - 9:29 am

    OOps I left out the ‘e’ in adultery…

  18. Mari -  August 21, 2010 - 9:27 am

    marriage and adultry are equal. Human beings place value judgments on it. It’s called polygamy in the animal kingdom. We are another branch of that same tree of life.

  19. Marcus -  August 21, 2010 - 9:10 am

    Adultery is a sin in the bible…………
    being an adult is not.

  20. Madeleine -  August 21, 2010 - 8:46 am

    Because this blog is linked to Dictionary.com, it IS correct to say that “adult” means “mature” because that is the literal meaning of the word. But to say that adultery is something that adults do is to focus exclusively on one’s physical ability to have sex (which, incidentally, adolescents can also do). A key characteristic of mature people is the ability to acknowledge responsibility for one’s own actions. Adultery is irresponsible because it focuses on the wants of the adulterer and disregards the impact of his or her actions on other members of the family and the community. We can forgive children and adolescents for being less than fully responsible, but adults are supposed to know better.

  21. CaptiousNut -  August 21, 2010 - 8:32 am

    I am shocked, just SHOCKED, that adultery has some French roots!

  22. Kelly Williams -  August 21, 2010 - 8:13 am

    According to the ten commandments, you should be married before having intercourse in the first place. Therefore, when you make a decision to get married you’re considered an adult when making that kind of decision. Being married doesn’t make you an adult.Some people are still not mature even then. I don’t think marriage should determine becoming an adult……maturity should!Even so,mature people still make mistakes!In today’s world, adultery shouldn’t be used a such a perfect word,as if adults are prefect. None of us are perfect ; Jesus is the ONLY perfect person I know.We’re all gonna make mistakes in life before dying….even if its adultery or something else!Even the best of us make mistakes,at some point,so……..NO ONE is perfect! This is my opinion.

  23. Addison -  August 21, 2010 - 8:08 am

    Most of the commenters are obviously too dull to understand the point of this blog post. Anyway: interesting etymology.

  24. hann -  August 21, 2010 - 8:05 am

    I appreciate the blogger’s researched explanation. Funny reading the comments arguing meanings… I have never considered Adult and Adultery to be related words. Not sure why anyone would. Particularly after being pointed to the Latin and French origins…

  25. ADULTERY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  August 21, 2010 - 8:01 am

    [...] Lady sings. — Some call intercourse having sex while others are making love. — The term adultery is grounds for divorce — but a horse is a horse of course. — Where is the [...]

  26. Dimwick -  August 21, 2010 - 6:22 am

    Well for starters, “adultus” is the perfect passive participle and not pluperfect. Pluperfect requires the third principle part of the verb and then the imperfect of “sum” is added. For example the third principle part of “porto” I carry, is “portavi” then the pluperfect would be “portaveram” I had carried. There you are. Ave atque vale.

  27. Richard Comaish -  August 21, 2010 - 4:36 am

    Not sure it’s a Good Thing that English is so influenced by a classical imperial pagan culture in which growing up seems to have been synonymous with being corrupted, tho. It sounds like either Original Sin, or the cause of all our problems.

  28. Richard Comaish -  August 21, 2010 - 4:31 am

    I’ve always thought that ‘adultery’ was archaic for ‘adulteration.’ Why? Because it makes sense, in a way no other explanation does, and seems to conform to a pattern of archaic simpler non-Latinate English endings.

  29. mac shake -  August 21, 2010 - 3:25 am

    Dan Draper only needs his soulmate to sort out his mess. I would like to see him happy in the next season, although his incessant affairs would be replaced by something else much less sexy but more intelligent.

  30. bonne' -  August 21, 2010 - 2:39 am

    i would like to disagree with you..a.
    i quote you here-”that adultery is a childish (no so “adult” like) thing to do? i think being childish is VERY different from being unfaithful”
    im sorry..adultery is adultery.

    and adultery is not equal to childishness..so get that thought off your head.
    have you ever thought about the fact that ‘bad habits die hard?’..if as a “child”,you commit adultery(well you mentioned it to be childish rite?)..i cant help but be sure that you’d be the future adulterous much married man..isn’t it?
    the chain shall follow and your nature unquestioningly similar!
    nothing personal here..just a comment:)

  31. The Word Guy -  August 21, 2010 - 1:28 am

    These “similar but not etymologically the same” words are always fascinating. The use of “adult” for pornographic materials may not have anything to do with the similarity to “adultery” but the fact that it is used as an adjective euphemistically in the sense of “pertaining to adults.” Even if “adultery” were to have never been around, using the adjectival “adult” would still make sense in this context.

  32. kary -  August 20, 2010 - 10:12 pm

    this is so interesting!

  33. Joy Corcoran -  August 20, 2010 - 9:30 pm

    It’s fascinating how words can come from different origins and wind up sounding the same, yet meaning opposite things. In our society, it takes a long time for an adult to become mature (although we age regardless) so there is adultery (which we engage in regardless). Adulterous behavior is both condemned and emulated in our media and social structures — the unloved/misunderstood married person at last finds “real” romance. Our media usually pokes fun at adult relationships — long marriages are repeatedly portrayed as boring and passionless, even though we all dream of a soulmate. Root words can help us understand meanings, but human beings and their passions escape easy definitions.

  34. Jackie -  August 20, 2010 - 8:39 pm

    When you get married you’re considered an adult. So adultery isn’t something children do. Adultery is exactly an “adult” f***ng thing to do. “Adult” doesn’t exclusively mean “mature”. “Adultery” and “cheating” are conveniently obtuse words, and so can be used around children who have no idea what they mean, that’s why they’ve lasted in polite diction. Even if they once had dissimilar meanings, I would say the now common perception of their similar meanings (which is what changes dictionaries ya noe) is dead accurate.

  35. Philo -  August 20, 2010 - 8:27 pm

    Has he ever found a true thing if there is anything true in the world?

  36. a weeding out day -  August 20, 2010 - 8:23 pm

    Draper in “MadMen” seemingly happily married but is actually engaged himself with multiple love affairs outside the marriage. He flits from one after another and appears to be more fulfilled with them than with his wife. The man of an experience of war in the advertisment business, how could he reconcile his ever unfilled desire with the real life as a responsible adult?

  37. Alan -  August 20, 2010 - 7:52 pm

    What a great explanation. Both etymologically interesting and thought provoking.

  38. bella -  August 20, 2010 - 7:43 pm

    yeh, u answered u r own question

  39. Dillan -  August 20, 2010 - 7:18 pm

    That’s totally whatev…adultery is adultery…that’s it…

  40. a -  August 20, 2010 - 7:03 pm

    wats ur point? that adultery is a childish (no so “adult” like) thing to do? i think being childish is VERY different from being unfaithful …and i reeeally dont think the “adult” that means pornographic has anything to do with it being a prefix in the word adultery it simply has to do with the fact that pornographic material is for adult viewers. Were u drunk when u wrote this?

  41. shareese -  August 20, 2010 - 6:25 pm

    hi iam shareese i just wanted to saii hi andmore lol gansta luv(pretty&paid)$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$4

  42. Zac -  August 20, 2010 - 5:03 pm

    Well, even though the two words stem from 2 different verbs (adolescere, to grow up / mature & adulterare – to corrupt), there are some commonalities among them, for example adults are known for being more corrupt than children.

    Another thing here that is interesting is that nouns can be found in certain conjugations of verbs, which might suggest people think those two things are related. So someone who does the verb adolescere might be corrupt in the sense that children are known for innocence and adults for their lost innocence.

    You see these phenomena in other languages all the time too, for example in German, the third person conjugation of the verb machen (to do / make) is “macht,” which is the same pronunciation as “Macht,” the noun for “power” in German. So there’s a connection between doing things and having power.

    A lot of nouns can be found from the conjugations of verbs.

    Hope you find these musings a-musing,

    ~ Zac ~

  43. David -  August 20, 2010 - 4:54 pm

    Um…Kathy? Was that a question or a statement?

  44. Kathy -  August 20, 2010 - 4:32 pm

    Maybe you’ve answered your own question?


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