A producer from the Radio 4 Today programme rang last week to ask me to talk about this phrase. They’d run an item the previous day about the discovery of a diary of a 17-year-old named Ilene Powell. The item caused many critical messages to arrive and they wanted me to salvage the long-dead lady’s reputation.
The diary, for the first three months of 1925, had been handed in to a Bristol charity shop. It attracted press attention because she sounded a bit like a flapper Bridget Jones: single and worried about her weight, but with a more lively social life and lots of boy friends. On 14 January 1925 she records that she breakfasted on dry toast and weak tea and says “if this doesn’t get my fat down, I’ll stop dieting”. The entry that caused all the fuss was the one for Saturday 7 February 1925: “Jack... took me to the White Ladies. Danced with all the lads as usual... Ticked off JG for making love to me on the roof garden. Home at 1.30.” [To tick off: to scold or reprimand.]
It seems a lot of listeners assumed making love was meant in the current sense of having sex, though a couple who tries it in a roof garden around midnight in February has my admiration for their fortitude, if nothing else. Of course, by the standards of the time making love meant nothing very much had been attempted; the young man had probably tried to steal a kiss and had been rebuffed.
The phrase was first recorded in a work by John Lyly in 1590. From then until about 1900 it could mean flirtation, or conversation aimed at encouraging an amorous encounter, or verbal protestations of love and devotion as part of courtship. For example, Anthony Trollope wrote in his novel Nina Balatka of 1867: “Go into any public dancing-room of Vienna, where the girls from the shops and the young men from their desks congregate to waltz and make love.” Captain Frederick Marryat presumably meant the courtship sense when he wrote in Poor Jack in 1840: “So the Governor’s daughter’s going to be married; at least I suppose so, for I met her riding with a young gentleman; and nowadays the quality always make love on horseback.”
Our modern sense seems to have arisen as slang around the beginning of the twentieth century. The best examples I have for this are in two D H Lawrence books, Sons and Lovers of 1913 and Lady Chatterley’s Lover of 1928. But Lawrence’s books were regarded as obscenely scandalous at the time and he was well ahead of accepted public word usage in this respect. Miss Powell would not have known it.
The evidence suggests, though, that in the following two decades the phrase did steadily shift towards a description of the most intimate physicality. By the 1940s, it was common to find it in novels in the sense we now know it. It’s in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four of 1949, for example: “When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything.” However, there’s plenty of evidence that the older sense persisted into the 1960s in some places and among some groups, especially older people.
The effect was to make making love into even more of a euphemism than it was before. It ceased being a description of negotiations towards what was hoped to become a more intimate relationship, and became a cliché for its ultimate expression.