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Let's Look At The Language

February 26, 2011

The language of courtship has changed over the years

Both my parents have been gone for many years now, which sometimes still seems hard to believe. Today is one of those times because it would be their 66th wedding anniversary. I often think about them as being my parents, but today I'll be thinking about their courtship. It's a quirky little story that, in an extremely condensed version, goes something like this:

In 1942, Evert's pal Jack goes to war, leaving behind pregnant wife, Mary. Schoolteacher Ruth boards with Mary and meets Evert, who takes home movies of the new baby for Jack. Then, the telegram: Jack won't be coming home. Evert visits more often. Ruth is glad he's there for Mary, and she imagines the little boy will soon have a father. Occasionally, Evert takes Ruth fishing, and they talk about Mary. Indeed, Evert is in love. He buys a ring and proposes to ... Ruth! She is stunned, but much more than that, she is overcome with the embarrassment that she didn't even know they were dating, so, as not to make him (or herself) look like a fool, she says "yes."

It was my mother's one and only courtship, and she missed it! An odd entrance to marriage, but it was only Evert's death 49 years later that would separate them.

It's true that theirs was an odd courtship, but historically speaking, courtship has not been without its peculiarities.

One of the most peculiar was the custom in Colonial America of "bundling." A practice that endured the longest in New England (oh, those Puritans!), it involved an arrangement in which the male suitor would be asked to spend the night with the young lady's family, specifically to share her bed.

An upright "bundling board" would separate the couple, or the bed might have a "bundling sack," one style of which was like a double sleeping bag stitched down the middle. As if these separating contrivances weren't ineffective enough, some households had only a "bundling bolster," which was a long pillow that ran the length of the bed (yeah, that oughta work).

Known as a tradition imported from England, bundling apparently came with the Dutch to New Amsterdam, New York, as well, though they called it "queesting."

By 1800, bundling as a courtship practice was well on its way out. Before long, Victorian culture would prevail, and if one term characterized courtship of the 19th century, it would be "calling." When permitted, gentlemen would call upon young ladies, and it was this custom of calling that eventually segued into "dating."

The transition was not, however, a subtle one. Prior to the 1910s, "dating" was a word associated with prostitution. But the Victorian Era was over, and socializing was undergoing a revolution.

The shift was profound, in that calling was all about meeting with one's future spouse in a proper domestic setting, and dating was all about having fun in public venues with someone of the opposite sex. In other words, tea in the parlor and church picnics had been replaced with amusement parks and dances.

By the 1920s, courtship was synonymous with dating, the relatively new terms "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" were fast gaining ground, and "going steady" had become the norm.

In the 1940s, dating was an imperative social ritual, and following World War II, the most common age for a bride was 17.

The average age at marriage took a leap in the 1960s, and courting as a social structure headed for the breakdown lane.

The language of courtship, once infused with such expressions as "pitching woo" and "getting pinned," took on a whole new level of informality with the likes of "hanging out" and "hooking up."

In the 21st century, there is some indication that people would like a return to some of the earlier customs of courtship. The question is, how much earlier? I mean, the occasional cup of tea in the parlor sounds rather pleasant and civilized, but bundling? Let's just say, "Victorians 1, Puritans 0."

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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