From Portland to St. Louis, the Occupy protests have been gaining momentum and continue to be front-page news. The protests sent us to the dictionary (where else?) to look up the etymology of the word “occupy.” We found an unexpected obsolete definition. The term occupy formerly meant something very different than its current common meaning. From the early 1500s to the 1800s, occupy was used to refer to sexual relations, as in “to occupy a woman” as defined in the Lexicon Balatronicum in 1811.
In fact, many words in common parlance have shed their sexual implications over time. Sex is simultaneously very taboo and very common, so it’s no wonder that countless words have been used to stand in for carnal knowledge. The most commonly used sexual euphemisms today are sleep with, make love, and the simple do. You’ve probably heard one of the oldest ones, too: to know. Today, the word is often is used in the phrase “to know in a biblical sense.” It comes from the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 4 when “the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived…” Throughout the Old Testament the word know is used synonymously with copulate. That’s a pretty dramatic implication for a small and common word.
Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton all used play to imply sex. Shakespeare was a master of unexpected turns of phrase to describe copulation. In Hamlet, Ophelia upbraids Hamlet by telling him “Before you tumbled me, you promis’d me to wed.” The Bard uses numerous word plays to describe sexual relations and bawdy topics. Here are only a few of his saucy synonyms: business, feat, grinding, juggling, possessing and praying. Thomas Wolfe used jazz as a euphemism for sex in his 1929 book Look Homeward, Angel. The stiff political word ratify was used to refer to consummation as early as 1561 and as recently as 1974.
Phrases also have developed to covertly refer to illicit relations, as in to shack up. Though it sounds modern and colloquial, the phrase to knock referring to pregnancy dates back to the early 1600s. John Steinbeck used a variation of the phrase in In Dubious Battle, saying, “Sooner or later some girl’d get knocked higher than a kite.”
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