Now I’m sure that the search engines will point a little traffic to this entry, but here’s a notice up front for all you web visitors looking for the actual thing called pornography.
There’s none of that here.
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This site talks about the history of words and today it’s talking about the history of the word pornography, not about pornography itself, nor about the history of pornography.
Call me a prude. Go ahead!
I got an email from Anne Marie and she expressed a sentiment that I get from time to time. It’s one of those things that you wonder if you’d be better off not knowing.
She was reading a book (that she does not recommend you or I pick up) and one of the things that bothered her about the book was its use of pornography.
I have no idea whether Anne Marie is a prude or not because it was the use of the word pornography itself that bothered her. Not because she doesn’t like the word, but because the book was set back in the 1840s and she doesn’t think the word came into use until the 1860s.
If we didn’t know language changed we’d never worry about such details and maybe some books would be more enjoyable.
Even though I am a prude the word pornography itself doesn’t bother me and I’d guess it doesn’t bother Anne Marie either because as a word it’s much like bibliography, geography or lexicography. That -graphy ending means “writing about” and comes from Greek.
But you can also tell from the fact that graphics or graphic pornography tend to be images not text that the root of –graphy comes from a time when writing was thought of as a kind of drawing representing the spoken word.
The porno part of pornography also comes from Greek and particularly ancient Greek at that.
That’s kind of appropriate seeing as how pornographos meant “writing about prostitutes” and prostitution has the nickname of “the oldest profession.”
I’ve always doubted that prostitution was actually the oldest profession because I have a sneaking suspicion that being a thief has an even longer history.
And now I have etymological evidence that knocks another leg out from prostitution as the oldest profession.
The Greek root porne meaning “prostitute” comes from an Indo-European per root meaning “to sell” and it’s thought that it was applied not so much because prostitutes were selling their bodies as professionals, but instead because they were being bought and sold as slaves.
But before I end this I have to give some comfort to the author of that unnamed book Anne Marie was reading.
The word does have particularly ancient roots and was used in French in 1800 in what the OED calls a “treatise on prostitution.”
Since Anne Marie’s book is set in New Orleans it’s possible that a French influence might have accelerated the adoption of the word there. In any case the OED has 1842 as its first citation for pronography in English, so the word’s use in a period piece set in the 1840s is not beyond credibility.