I’ve been reading The London Train (P.S.) (a birthday gift from jamessal), and I was sent to the dictionary by the following sentence: “She showed them a dusty depression on the bank that might be where the otters slept by day, and their spraints nearby, blackish messes of fish scales and fragments of bone, probably eel bones.” Spraints, it turns out, are (to quote the OED) the excrement of the otter. It’s from Old French espraintes, from espraindre ‘to squeeze out’ < Latin exprimere: an expressive word.
And now a quiz. A correspondent writes that he canvassed his friends about the word “fornication” and discovered that most of them understand it as referring to any sex at all, whereas the dictionaries define it only as sex outside of marriage (which is the way I understand it): “This makes me think there’s been an interesting shift in the meaning of the word, perhaps only during the twentieth century (the OED’s entry is unchanged since 1e, in 1897). Do you or your readers know whether this shift has been studied?” I don’t; do you?


  1. Well, I certainly have believed (y’all’ll correct me) it to refer to illicit sex. Unmarried sex, premarital sex, adulterous sex…not, probably, homosexual sex.
    But where have these definitions come from? Reading old dictionaries at the age of 12?
    Also, the fabled “Fornication Under the King” thing…(never seen it on a gravestone)…
    I look forward to more documentation and the wider poll.

  2. Looking at COCA, I think there is only one sign of such a shift, from 2008: “God asks us to not be involved in incest, prostitution, bestiality, fornication – which I just liken to unmarried sex – and homosexuality.” If the speaker merely likens fornication to unmarried sex, then either she doesn’t know what liken means, or the two terms are not quite synonymous for her. But all the contexts for fornication given there are religious, legal, or historical, sometimes all of them at once, as in discussions of Measure for Measure.
    Note that even ‘sex outside of marriage’ is not precise enough: technically it is not fornication unless both partners are unmarried and of opposite sexes, and even then, sexual intercourse must be involved — though perhaps you are one of those people for whom sex necessarily includes sexual intercourse. (Heigh-ho for the modern world, in which we so often must make such careful distinctions as acoustic guitar and analog clock.)

  3. You can delete this if you like, but my husband instantly said “illicit sex” which I thought was good: Hey! We agree!
    But then he went on to ask himself…and his conclusion is that it NOW refers to illicit homosexual sex outside any sort of marriage, if one or both parties are married.
    (And I realize that my remark excluding homosexual sex, would’ve meant between otherwise uncommitted free agents.)
    Husband also refers to “the church’s definition”, and when pressed refers to a Hebrew word translation in an Authorized Version context. [He studied these things].
    Then he goes to lie on the floor and relieve his bad back.

  4. And then he goes on to the Old Testament (he studied that, too) and so suggests that he would regard fornication as a classification that probably applies to Dionysian sex as opposed to Appollonian sex.
    I explain to him that this is a sort of survey – “how do YOU ‘hear’ it as an anglophone in 2013″ Not “what if you are called upon to write a dictionary entry.”
    But that’s his perception.

  5. Jeffry House says:

    Hot sex: furn-ication
    Needy sex= horn-ication

  6. narrowmargin says:

    I’d always assumed fornication was simply sexual intercourse, inside or outside of marriage.
    However, given all those holy roller, Bible-thumpin’ preachers I used to see on TV between Sunday morning cartoon shows way back when, I should have guessed “illicit”.
    As for masturbation, shouldn’t that be “lone-ication”?

  7. I always thought fornication was any sort of sexual intercourse until about 2 weeks ago when I looked it up. I am 57, English/Australian.

  8. Herman C says:

    Two thousand years ago a fornicatrix was an arch-lady, i.e. one of the prostitutes serving under the arches of a Roman arena. The meaning has since drifted somewhat as customs and preachers evolved.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’d like to see if anyone can find some actual in-the-wild example sentences where “fornicate/ion” is (non-jocularly) used to refer to sex between a man and a woman who are married to each other at the time (and, I suppose, known to the author/speaker to be married to each other at the time). If not, I’m not convinced there’s been a real shift. Don’t ask people what they think words mean; observe how they use them in practice. The COCA example JC posted may suggest a bit of uncertainty, but then settles on a more or less traditional usage, and might well in context just be a polite way of trying to avoid the risk of making listeners feel dumb for not knowing what the word means. It may be, of course, that people who know they are a little fuzzy about the exact semantic parameters of this old-fashioned and judgmental-sounding word prudently avoid trying to affirmatively use it themselves, thus skewing the results somewhat (i.e., my proposed test can’t measure how people who don’t themselves use the word but do hear/read it are interpreting it).
    I don’t know the various underlying Hebrew words for disapproved-of types of sex floating around the OT, but in translating the NT, Greek “porneia” is sometimes Englished as “fornication” even though its referent is probably broader than that in Greek, just because there’s no good English lexical item whose range is coterminous with “porneia,” although this of course is just an instance of a ubiquitous problem in translation.
    There’s also a phenomenon where in some contexts (especially with pejoratives and/or legalisms?), people tend to use the strongest and/or most precise word available. So if “rape” is an appropriate characterization of a particular act, it will probably not be characterized as “fornication.” Does that mean that “consensual” is intrinsically built into the definition of “fornication,” or just that when lack-of-consent is a salient fact a narrower (and stronger) word will tend in practice to displace the broader/weaker word? One could ask the same question with respect to the distinction between fornication and adultery. Are instances of adultery by definition not fornication (which would thus have a further specification as to the marital status of one or both participants built into the definition), or is it just the narrower/stronger word displacing the broader/weaker.

  10. Rodger C says:

    Some recent English Bibles render “porneia” as “immorality,” a disastrous triumph of usage over clear moral theology (or clear thinking of any kind).
    May I voice the suspicion that “fornication” is used for any kind of sex mainly by people who don’t recognize any kind of sex (at least between or among adults) as illicit? Nothing wrong with that, I hasten to add.

  11. Hot sex: furn-ication
    “fornicate” is related to “furnace”, via what Herman C said and the arched shapes of ovens

  12. So if “rape” is an appropriate characterization of a particular act, it will probably not be characterized as “fornication.”
    I think that’s probably true, certainly as applied to the rape victim.
    Are instances of adultery by definition not fornication?
    Yes per the COCA examples, where the two terms are almost always contrasted.
    May I voice the suspicion that “fornication” is used for any kind of sex mainly by people who don’t recognize any kind of sex (at least between or among adults) as illicit?
    COCA thinks otherwise, but of course it only reflects written American English.

  13. I feel as if we’ve heard of spraints before. Is there another word for otter droppings? At least, we once spoke of a special word for the scat of some animal, some animal associated with river banks. Noetica was there, and there were puns …

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    John C.: I respectfully submit that you need a COCA example (or a non-COCA example) of someone using “fornication” for “any kind of sex” before we can further evaluate what COCA thinks. I am not convinced by your “which I just liken” example — it kinda sorta suggests that the speaker is specifying one possible meaning out of a group of alternatives his/her audience might think was available, but doesn’t tell me what the semantic range of the alternative or alternatives is.

  15. For what it’s worth, I have a suspicion in line with Rodger’s. It seems to me that the word has been embraced in a gleeful “let’s do it, even though some old fogeys say it’s wrong” mindset and has become a playful fun-to-say word for sexual intercourse. I mean no value judgement for or against this.

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    The older (16th/17th century) editions of the Anglican wedding service note that one of the divinely-approved-of purposes of Holy Matrimony is “for the avoidance of fornication.” (FWIW, the f-word was removed in subsequent editions by 19th/early-20th c. euphemizers and bowdlerizers, not by what’s-the-big-deal-about-waiting-for-marriage liberals of a more recent vintage.) The earliest post-Reformation edition also had a prayer that the couple “live chastely in matrimony,” which was not incompatible with a separate prayer that the couple be blessed with children, but the distinction understood at the time between celibacy (no sex) and chastity (no inappropriate sex) had probably become obscure several generations before the present.

  17. dearieme says:

    There was an Otter Hunt where I grew up. The anglers were keen supporters. The great joke, of the lame little-boy type joke, was to try to convince someone that you go otter hunting on horseback. So “spraints” I’d heard before; I don’t remember anyone using “scat” though apart from the jazz use which seemed to mean “the sort of tedious singing performed by Ella Fitzgerald when she was long past her best”. (But wasn’t her best wonderful?)

  18. John Emerson says:

    Nixon asks David Frost about his fornication activities
    I suspect that this is the canonical use of the word for most living Americans.

  19. I think of fornication as illicit sex, or sex when the speaker wants to emphasize that sex is dirty.
    Before reading this post I hadn’t thought “outside of marriage” was a requirement, but I can’t now think of any circumstances where I’d expect sex within marriage to be called fornication. Like J.W. Brewer, I’ll be interested if anyone can find an in-the-wild example of that kind of usage.

  20. I am quite sure that “chaste” in both my husband’s and my lexicons still “just” means “faithful”.
    Uh…I was going to say “continent”; but I suppose that has gone on to mean celibate, as well? Or perhaps it always did…to some.

  21. Trying to be sociable, I asked my husband if he would take a short quiz, and when he assented, I read him in a conscientiously neutral way, the questions on the “Science and Technology” quiz that is circulating at the moment. (I really wanted him to get 100% like everybody else.)
    But on the question about electrons: ‘Electrons are smaller than atoms. Is this statement true or false?’ I am afraid he got it wrong.
    I didn’t reveal any answers until the end; but at answering, he said: Atoms are irreducible, no?
    He thinks in Classical Greek, I think. I shall ask him about “porneia” in the morning.

  22. dearieme, if you don’t like scat singing then it will be tedious for you. I don’t believe anybody did it better than Ella Fitzgerald; I don’t associate it particularly with her later years; and she wasn’t the first to do it. When my son was young I sometimes played a tape of Cliff Edwards for him, and he referred to Edwards’s scat singing as “baby hedgehog music”. I can’t explain why, but it was a good name for it.

  23. For me fornication is in the same class of words as reticent: it really means one thing, viz. the thing I learned it as meaning (“sex outside of marriage” and “keeping silent”), but people keep using it to mean something else (“sex of any kind” and “reluctant”). I sigh in resignation, or mutter about hell and handbaskets, depending on which kind of ‘scriptivist has the upper hand.
    (So what is reticent fornication? I leave it to the reader to calculate the possibilities.)

  24. dearieme says:

    I don’t want to join the army,
    I don’t want to go to war.
    I’d rather hang around on the Underground,
    Living off the earnings of a high born lady.
    Don’t want a bayonet up me arsehole,
    Don’t want me balls all shot away.
    I’d rather stay in Scotland, in bonny, bonny Scotland,
    And fornicate me fucking life away. All together …

  25. Fornication = illicit sex for me. I sang in the choir as a boy, so I probably heard it mostly in church.
    There’s a wonderful passage in the New Testament that sounds (at least to the teenage boy that I was) like an Aladdin’s Cave of naughtiness: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like
    I’m now imagining a deep-voiced Anglican cleric disapprovingly intoning the word “emulations”, and finding it hard to suppress a smile.

  26. The New International Version makes it rather clearer what is going on: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” Murder seems to have got lost altogether, and adultery and fornication are, perhaps sensibly, merged.
    This is probably not, however, the “great text in Galatians / Once you trip on it, entails / Twenty-nine distinct damnations / One sure, if another fails” (Browning), as many have thought. For one thing, there are too few sins; for another, the heresy of Manichaeanism is that the Old Law is evil in itself, which this doesn’t fit at all. Browning may have had in mind something like Gal. 3:21, which says: “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” (NIV) It would be very easy to misinterpret that and find yourself anathema.

  27. Lota of other interpretations are possible, just as you say, but 17 “works of the flesh” + 9 “fruit of the Spirit” + “vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another” = 29.

  28. You people are so moralistic.
    What about fun-ication?

  29. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve only seen “fornication” used as “unspecified sexual acts the speaker disapproves of or jocularly pretends to disapprove of”. Probably limited to heterosexual situations. However, German seems to lack a comparable word…

    the distinction understood at the time between celibacy (no sex) and chastity (no inappropriate sex)

    What? I thought celibacy means “no marriage” except in recent English usage, and chastity means “no sex”?
    (Of course celibacy used to imply chastity.)

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Forgot to mention that I’ve seen American fundamentalists use glory in ways that have nothing to do with reputation. The Mormon meaning(s) may be especially bizarre.

  31. this old-fashioned and judgmental-sounding word
    Don’t judge as they do NOT as I say! Oh, the hypocrisy

  32. What about the etymology that says that supposedly “forni” were the archways all over Rome you could slip into to do the nasty because there was never an privacy at home, supposedly the same etymon as for ‘oven’.
    I hope it’s valid, because if it is, what a perfect name for a pastry shop.

  33. Rodger C says:

    Re spraints and scats, has anyone brought up fewmets?

  34. “Fewmets” I know from, I believe, the story of King Pellinore in The Once and Future King. But there is another dung-word lurking on the edge of memory.

  35. The electrification thread seems to be closed, but I am tantalized (if “tantalize” is a transitive verb) by David Marjanovic’s comment about the “Baghdad battery”:
    A magic device that just so happens to be a very, very, very, very weak battery but was intended to protect the building by quite different means.

  36. Yeah, sorry, I was driven to desperation by floods of spam that kept coming in even as I was deleting it, so I closed all the threads. I’ve reopened the most recent ones, and am keeping my fingers crossed.

  37. There is no doubt that English ‘fornication’ comes from the Latin word for ‘arch’ (fornix, pl. fornices), which is etymologically related to the Latin words for ‘furnace, oven’ (furnus, pl. furni and fornax, pl. fornaces). I suppose the connection is that both are made of semicircular rows of stones.
    However, the noun fornicatio had no sexual meaning in Classical Latin: it meant ‘vaulting, archway’, and is found in Vitruvius and in Seneca’s Moral Epistles. In the latter (95.53), human society is said to be “very like a fornication/arch of stones” (societas nostra lapidum fornicationi simillima est), “which would fall if the stones did not mutually support each other, and is held up by that very fact”.
    The simple word fornix, ‘arch’, is often used in classical Latin to refer to the places where prostitutes hung out, starting with Horace, who refers to a prostitute as the woman ‘standing in the stinking archway’. The Oxford Latin Dictionary gives further references in the elder Seneca, as well as Petronius, Martial, Juvenal, Suetonius, and Apuleius, which covers most of the sleazier Silver Latin authors. However, fornix is also the ordinary word for any arch, and there doesn’t seem to have been any FORN- word with a purely sexual meaning in Classical Latin. By the way, fornaces and fornices are not as confusable as they look, since the A is long and takes the accent, while the I is short and leaves the accent of fornices on the FORN-.

  38. Would it be fair to say that the relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett grew from their shared enthusiasm for ‘fornacation’?

  39. One more note: The Austin Lounge Lizards, in the title song of their best album, The Highway Cafe of the Damned, have their own (or the narrative persona’s own) quirky list of the Seven Deadly Sins: “sloth and avarice, fornication, television, whiskey, beer, and wine”.

  40. A fornication of stones makes a pretty good collective noun.

  41. Rodger C says:

    Ø: I learned “fewmets” from the same place, but later I learned “fomites,” presumably the Latin original, a medical term for any unpleasant bodily ejection.

  42. Treesong says:

    I suspect I’ve never used ‘fornication’ myself but I think my mental representation is ‘nonmarital sex’ rather than ‘illicit sex’, mainly because my first association with the word is the bawdy ballad ‘Cats on the Rooftops’.
    The whale is a mammal, as everybody knows
    He takes two days to take a shag and when he’s in the throes
    He doesn’t stop to take it out, but piddles through his nose
    As he revels in the joys of fornication.
    And the many other verses all have fourth lines much like the one above.
    Re spraints and otter hunting: heu gase!

  43. empty: But there is another dung-word lurking on the edge of memory.
    We may be trying to recall the same thing. I once had an exchange with Noetica here involving a word for butterfly poo, that had something to do with Fraß (I think). But I can’t find the comment thread.

  44. Something to do with Fraß? It has everything to do with it: the English term for caterpillar poo is ‘frass’. I mean the term used by entomologists: the general public doesn’t often have need of a word for that particular thing.

  45. Grumbly Stu and Noetica on butterfly frass: CANNOT (HELP) BUT.
    Noetica on a bagful of spraints: UNICODE, NORMALIZATION, AND GREEK..

  46. Thanks, MMcM. I had found that comment thread, but there I simply “cite” butterfly frass. The thread I have in mind, where N and I happened on the topic, must have preceded that.

  47. Rodger C:  Actually, there is no connection. Fewmet, fumet is from Anglo-Norman fumets, fumez, ultimately from Latin fuma:re ‘shit (verb)’, unconnected with fu:ma:re ‘smoke’. Fomites (singular fomes) is the Latin for ‘(pieces of) tinder’.

  48. Rodger C says:


  49. From Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta:
    FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed—-
    BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
    And besides, the wench is dead.
    Doesn’t add anything to the discussion, but I like it …

  50. Trond Engen says:

    John C.: Actually, there is no connection. Fewmet, fumet is from Anglo-Norman fumets, fumez, ultimately from Latin fuma:refu:ma:re ‘smoke’.
    Could the vowel be due to folk-etymological contamination? Here’s CNRTL on the etymology of French fumier m. “manure; filth”:

    Étymol. et Hist. 1160-74 femiers (Wace, Rou, éd. J. Holden, III, 4917). Du b. lat. *femarium proprement « tas de fumier », dér. du b. lat. femus « fumier » (ives. ds TLL s.v. fimum, 765, 79), altération, sous l’infl. du class. stercus -oris, neutre « excrément, fiente, fumier », du class. fimus, masc. (quelquefois neutre, prob. sous la même infl. : 1remoitié ives., ibid. 766. 10); de *femus neutre est issu de l’a. fr. fiens (xiies. ds T.-L.); pour femier devenu fumier, v. fumer.

  51. Maybe. I observe that in English, at least, we do talk of steaming piles of manure.

  52. Paul: Searching Google Books for “that was … is dead”, and omitting “Jew”, “Malta”, and “Marlowe”, still turns up 1,620 hits. So it’s a popular phrase with a lot of people.
    MMcM: I don’t see any way to call “fruits of the spirit”, namely “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance”, damnations. Normally I bow to your superior textual evidence, but not this time.
    Treesong: For the record, the tune is “John Peel”.

  53. Also for the record, it’s “the throes of fornication.”
    And yes, the Marlowe quote has been a favorite of mine for many years. It’s the kind of thing that once you hear you don’t forget.

  54. Also for the record, it’s “the throes of fornication.”
    That’s not enough information to assess performance. How many batters were faced, for instance ?

  55. I’ve forgotten the sf story in which I read fornixation, but it meant implanting a wire into the fornix of the brain and running a current through it: a very addictive thing to do. In Larry Niven’s novels it’s called wireheading in plain English.

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