From billet-doux to swiping right: how dating language has changed
In the age of Tinder, texting, and social media stalking, the way we go about finding a mate has altered radically. The language of love has kept pace, with scores of new words emerging to reflect the changes in modern dating. But history also has a rich supply of romantic terms, and they’re not all as coy as you might think…
Here, we trace the different stages of dating in both the present and the past, comparing the language we use today with the sweet nothings of history. Which era wins your heart? Would you be happy to leave technology behind and swap sexts for billet-doux? Or are you content swiping right while you Netflix and chill?
Stage one: choosing a partner
In the 21st century, almost everybody looks for love in the same place: online. The OED has evidence of online dating and Internet dating from the 1980s and 1990s, but more recently, dating apps such as Tinder have really revolutionized the way people meet new partners. Tinder has also had an impact on our language, introducing the concepts of ‘swipe left’ and ‘swipe right’. For the uninitiated: in the app, users can indicate that they find someone attractive by moving their finger to the right across an image of them on a touchscreen. If they’re not impressed, they swipe left. The idea has now spread beyond the app, with the phrases used as shorthand for approval (or disapproval) of pretty much anything, such as we would totally swipe right on this apartment and can we just swipe left on that idea?
But how on earth did people get together before the Internet? Historically, couples were often introduced by friends and family, with marriages generally viewed as economic and political alliances, rather than romantic unions. By the early 17th century those involved in arranging such relationships had become known as matchmakers, and the word is still in common use today. As time moved on, people gained more freedom to choose their own partners, and new ways of meeting also emerged. If you were young and single in the early 20th century, you may have taken part in a monkey parade. This rather scornful term refers to public gatherings of young people, usually on Sunday evenings, with the main aim being to meet members of the opposite sex. It is first recorded as a noun in 1910, by H. G. Wells, and as a verb in 1934, when J. B. Priestley reported that the ‘elderly citizens’ of Bradford ‘have always been disgusted by the sight of young people monkey-parading’. The Oxford Dictionaries entry for monkey parade received an unexpected surge in search volume when the term was mentioned by Leon on the Channel 4 show Gogglebox.
Around the same time that OAPs were being scandalized by monkey paraders, people began turning to strangers for help in finding their perfect match. The OED’s first record of a dating agency comes from 1923, and the current earliest evidence of blind date is from 1925. Speed dating, where people have a series of short conversations with potential partners in order to determine whether there is mutual interest, originated in the American Jewish community, and is evidenced from around the year 2000. Still so much slower than swiping left or right, though.
Though certainly fast and convenient, the world of online dating is fraught with danger – most prominent of which is catfishing. This is when someone creates a fictional online persona, and uses it to lure someone into a relationship. The term came from the 2010 film Catfish, a documentary following the development of such a relationship.
Stage two: flirtation
Once you’ve identified your love target, you need to show them that you’re interested. Wooing has been going on for around 1000 years – or at least that’s how far back the word woo has been attested – with the OED’s current first examples coming from an Old English translation of the Latin text Liber Scintillarum. The nature of that wooing has changed over the years, however. By the 17th century, you may have found yourself pickeering with a prospective partner. Originally referring to skirmishing or raids by pirates, the word quickly came to be used of playful and flirtatious romantic quarrelling. Such teasing argument could be seen as a form of foreplay, albeit an often frustrating one. Thomas Shadwell’s 1690 play The Amorous Bigot makes this scandalously clear when Don Bernardo states: ‘I hate this pickeering; Let’s lay aside our forlorn hopes, and let our bodies joyn’.
A less aggressive way of showing your interest in someone is to drop the handkerchief at them. This phrase developed from chasing games of the same name, where a person would have to run after and catch another who had thrown a handkerchief to them. By the end of the 17th century, to drop or throw a handkerchief to someone was to show that you were romantically interested in them, or had chosen them as a partner.
Sometimes, you have to take any chance to flirt that you can. In the early 20th century, square pushing was popular. Men would accompany nursemaids as they took their young charges out in their prams in town squares, giving the opportunity to exchange endearments, and even a clandestine kiss.
Nowadays, you’d be more likely to make a grab for your phone than the handle of a perambulator when looking to flirt. Sexting – the sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone – is now notorious, and has been going on for the whole of the 21st century, with the first evidence of the term currently from 2001. Even newer is the idea of sliding into the DMs, which has become popular as a meme in recent years. DM here refers to Direct Messaging, the private message feature of several social media sites. If you slide into the DMs you are sending a person a direct message in a smooth and confident manner (you hope).
Stage three: getting serious
If the flirtation all goes to plan, you could find yourself falling in love (something we’ve been describing as such since at least the 15th century). This could quickly lead to love fever – a form of lovesickness or overwhelming passion which has been used in relation to tormented lovers since 1637. If infected, you may be desperate to take your relationship to the next level.
Historically, courting couples would not have been able to get physical until they were legally married. One way of getting around this was the tradition of bundling, where a couple were allowed to sleep together in the same bed while fully clothed or ‘bundled up’. This allowed couples to be intimate, without (supposedly) allowing sexual intercourse to take place.
Lovemaking and making love may be as old as time itself, but the terms have only been used to describe sexual activity since around 1927. Before that, they solely meant the earlier stages of courtship and wooing. There were, however, plenty of other words for sex – from chamber work in the 15th century, and the verb tumble in the early 1600s, to the 20th-century’s hanky-panky. Most recently, the phrase Netflix and chill has emerged as a euphemism. Originally, this was used as a straightforward description of the activity of relaxing and watching television together, but it soon developed into coded slang for sex – an ambiguity that has led to much embarrassment and confusion for those just hoping for a good binge-watching session.
A successful 21st-century seduction might lead to you catching feelings or catching feels, a phrase that emerged recently to describe the state of falling for someone. The expression has negative connotations, however – like its earlier counterpart love fever, it strongly associates experiencing such romantic feelings with ‘catching’ a cold or disease. So be careful – you may discover that the new love of your life just considers you a friend with benefits…
Stage four: the break-up
If that’s the case, then the end of your relationship may well be in sight. In the 17th century, the word jilt was coined to describe rejecting or abandoning a lover – it is still used today, though usually of someone who has been left just before their wedding.
A lot of break-up terms date from the 20th century – perhaps reflecting social changes which meant it was common to be involved in more serious relationships before making the commitment of marriage. Break up itself has been used as a verb to describe ending a romantic relationship since at least 1912, and dump is first recorded in this context in 1946. Around the same time, we see the first evidence of Dear John letters – a written message from a woman to a man, ending their relationship. This phrase is first found in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, and was commonly used of servicemen whose wives had fallen in love with someone else while their husbands were serving overseas.
Twenty-first century dumpees are more likely to find themselves victims of ghosting. This is where someone ends a relationship by suddenly withdrawing from all communication, without any explanation. Texts and phone calls go unanswered, and the ghostee may find themselves unfriended or blocked on social media. A similar practice is swerving, which involves avoiding a person who you are not interested in. You can swerve someone by failing to reply to their messages, or in real life, by physically dodging any contact with them. Breaking up is not so hard to do, it seems, especially in the modern world…