Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're dating…
Q: Hi AWC, where does LOVE come from?
A: Well, that’s a good question. It takes time. It comes from a place of respect and mutual attraction. But it’s also–
Q: NO, not THAT. I mean the WORD “love” – where does it come from??
A: Oh. Right. Yeah, that makes more sense. The noun actually comes from the Old English “lufu”.
Q: I think I have one of those in my shower.
A: The verb was “lufian” – and it all originally came from the Germanic root word “leubh-” meaning to care, desire or love. This was the base for German’s modern word for love (“liebe”). It also gave us the word “libido”.
Q: High five!
Q: So what about the early stages of romantic love? Where does the verb “court” come from – as in “to court someone”?
A: This actually dates back to the behaviour seen in a royal court where subjects tried to “gain favour” with the monarch of the day. This “on your best behaviour” stuff is seen clearly in the word “courtesy” – and even in direct royal contexts still with “curtsy”.
Q: Wow – so it is! Wait, is it “curtsy” or “curtsey”?
A: Without an “e” is more common, but both are acceptable – just be consistent.
Q: Can’t you also “court power” or “court disaster”?
A: That’s true – you might also “flirt with disaster”. Think of it all as trying to attract something. The most enduring form is to court someone romantically.
Q: To “woo” them, even?
A: Ah yes. No one is quite certain about the origin of the word “woo” – it comes from the Old English “wogian”, which some say relates to bending over or inclining – maybe even like a curtsy. “Woo”, just like court, is an attempt to attract or win over someone.
Q: I always assumed it was related to the sound your friends or younger siblings would make when they saw you together with someone – “woooooooooo!”. It was usually followed by a song about you both being up a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.
A: Well, it’s certainly a catchier version than our etymology.
Q: Okay, but even “courting” someone is considered old fashioned these days. A chivalrous term akin to opening car doors.
A: That’s true. No one has time for that.
Q: So, what then of the term, “dating”. Why do we use the word DATE instead?
A: This can of course be both a noun (“I’m going on a date”) or a verb (“To date someone new”). And while the time-related “date” had been around since the 14th century, this romantic sense didn’t appear until the 1890s.
Q: How did it evolve?
A: Perhaps from what you might expect – the use of the calendar to name a “prearranged liaison or social engagement” in advance.
Q: So people didn’t have social lives prior to the 1890s?
A: That’s right. It was one big lockdown, minus the Zoom calls and Netflix.
Q: Sounds terrible.
A: But seriously, the idea of the social appointment being called a “date” had taken hold in the 1880s. It only took a decade before a romantic outing was linked also to the same name. And by 1900, it also became the PERSON you went on this outing with. For example, “have you met my date?”.
Q: And the verb?
A: Well, with both nouns firmly established and catching on (“I’m going on a date with my date!”), the verb took no time at all to follow suit. Etymological records have the use of “to date” meaning “to have a romantic liaison” from 1903.
Q: They certainly didn’t muck about! I guess after centuries of not being able to date, it makes sense they acted fast.
A: You do know that romantic liaisons themselves weren’t invented in this time – just the term “date” to define them, right?
Q: Oh, um, yes. Ahem, I knew that.
A: The term “blind date” seems to have originated around 1921 in US colleges, initially to describe the person before later describing the event. This term was possibly influenced by the meaning of “flying blind” (without instruments) which aviators had only coined a few years earlier, in 1919.
Q: And double dating?
A: That term also took hold in the 1920s.
Q: So to recap, it started out as “a date” – a prearranged romantic liaison that one might circle on the calendar. That “date” went on to not only describe the event, but both the act AND the people.
A: It’s a very hardworking word.
Q: And if the dates go really well, friends might eventually ask, “have you set a date?”
A: Haha, true.
Q: I have one final dating question, but not related to romance. When did “sell-by dates” first become a thing?
A: Good question. A “sell-by date” – sometimes also called a “use-by”, “best before” or “expiry” date – is a date printed on most modern food packaging. British retailer Marks & Spencer first introduced them in its storerooms in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the practice – and the name – took hold on shelves. Dictionary Merriam-Webster dates “sell-by date” from 1971. It’s fairly recent!
Q: Well I think this conversation may have reached its expiry date.
A: We’ve wooed enough words for one day…
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