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Seven-year itch

Q From Loren Crispell: In the final chapter of Walden, almost at the final paragraph, Thoreau refers to mankind as human insects and uses the phrase the seven year itch. My wife and I were trying to locate the original use as the author was not in any way referring to relationships or sexual boredom. Perhaps you can shed some light.

A Well spotted. This example of the phrase is one of the earliest known. But the sense of Henry Thoreau’s text isn’t what you might call limpidly clear to most people today:

There is not one of my readers who has yet lived a whole human life. These may be but the spring months in the life of the race. If we have had the seven-years’ itch, we have not seen the seventeen-year locust yet in Concord.

Walden, or Life in the Woods, by Henry Thoreau, 1854.

The seven-year itch that he had in mind was an infection by a mite which lays its eggs in burrows under the skin. Its medical name is scabies, whose name comes appropriately from Latin scabere, to scratch. It was once extremely common in all kinds of situations and historical American sources are full of names for it, among them Indiana itch, Illinois itch, Jackson itch, Cuban itch, prairie itch, camp itch, army itch, ship itch, jail itch, mattress itch, swamp itch, winter itch, barley itch and grain itch. It was very hard to treat before effective insecticides came along.

Many remedies were advertised that claimed to cure the condition. The earliest example on record is this, which is also the first appearance of seven-year itch in print:

To the Afflicted. Dr. Mason’s Indian Vegetable Panacea, which may be taken with perfect safety, by all ages, for the cure of the following diseases:-- Dyspepsia, Scrofula, afflictions of the Chest and Lungs, Cods, Coughs, Liver complaints, Mercurial disease, Ulcers, Sores ... also, that corruption so commonly known to the western country as the scab or seven year Itch, &c.

An advertisement by Dr John Mason in the Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 26 Mar. 1839. Thanks to Stephen Goranson for finding this.

Because it was so hard to get rid of, a story grew up in North America that those who got the itch were stuck with it for the next seven years. The phrase was sometimes later reinterpreted to mean that it would recur after seven years, or would reappear every year for seven years. More recently, seven-year itch has occasionally been used for the itch caused by poison ivy and for a while became a figurative term for something or someone that was persistently irritating or a continual nuisance.

Your sense, which one work on idioms calls “a real or imagined longing for other women in a man’s seventh year of marriage”, appeared a century after Walden. There’s no known example before George Axelrod borrowed it for the title of his stage comedy of 1952. It was popularised worldwide by the 1955 Billy Wilder film version starring Marilyn Monroe.

In 1992, William Safire recorded a conversation he had had with Mr Axelrod about why he chose the title. The latter was sure that it had never been used in a “marital wanderlust connotation” before he borrowed it:

How did he come across this Americanism? “I was writing jokes for a hillbilly comedian called Rod Brassfield,” recalls Mr. Axelrod, “who starred with Minnie Pearl on the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ radio show. ... One of his favorite lines was: ‘I know she’s over 21 because she’s had the seven-year itch four times!’ That hideous line,” says Mr. Axelrod, now 69, “was running through my head when I was desperately seeking a title for the play I had just finished ... In the first draft, the guy had been married 10 years (as had I) but the title, when it came, had a natural ring to it and I changed the number of years the hero had been married accordingly.”

On Language, New York Times, 29 Mar. 1992.

Modern medicine cures scabies quickly. Together with Axelrod’s inspired play title and the success of the film, seven-year itch now refers almost exclusively to a married man’s wandering eye, even in the US where the term originated.

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