In a Word: A History of Celibacy

There was a time when celibacy was frowned upon by “proper” society.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today. 

Celibacy isn’t a word that often make its way into daily conversation, but most people know what it means. Or do they? Most people — and especially, I think, younger generations — don’t realize that celibacy has taken a turn over the last 200 years in a way that reflects our changing mores. 

The word traces back to the Latin caelebs, meaning “unmarried,” which begat caelibatus “the state of being unmarried.” This merged in the mid-17th century with the English abstract noun suffix -cy (as in efficiency and solvency) to create celibacy, an English word indicating the voluntary abstinence from marriage.  

Catholic priests, for example, both then and now take a vow of celibacy, which is a vow to remain unmarried. The word originally contained no direct reference to sexual relations. But prevailing religious and social beliefs — more so in the past than today — dictated that sexual relations were to be confined to marriage, so sexual abstinence was subsumed within the original concept of celibacy. 

Which is why we can find in the January 18, 1868, issue of the Post, without any sense of violating the Victorian urge to avoid discussions of a sexual nature, a brief article called “The Disuse of Marriage,” which says, in part,  

“Of women of marrying ages, i.e., between twenty and forty, in England, 58 per cent are married, 39 per cent are spinsters, and 3 per cent are widows. In a word, two adult women out of every five are single.” It would appear, moreover, that a disproportionate number of these “involuntary celibates” belong to the higher and the upper-middle ranks, marriage and event pretty early marriage being the rule among the lower and middle classes. …The writer traces the cause of this increase of involuntary spinsterhood … to the too prevalent sentiment on the part of indolent and self-indulgent men in “society,” that there are many other luxuries much more difficult to forego [sic] than the luxury of a wife and home.  

Note: The entirety of this 1868 article is reprinted at the end because it’s an interesting glimpse into the views of the importance of marriage to the readership at the time.  

This excerpt reveals another notable facet of celibacy: Through the 1800s, outside of religious vows, celibacy wasn’t considered a virtue. Once you reached a certain age, you were expected to marry, settle down, and start a family. Remaining celibate was frowned upon, and celibacy could imply all the worst traits of unrestrained bachelorhood, including sexual looseness and debauchery — quite the opposite of what we think of celibacy today. Some people even believed rampant celibacy was causing a decline in overall sexual morality.  

The 20th century diluted the more extreme views of celibacy, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the sexual implications of the word celibacy overtook the nuptial inference. Today, outside of the clergy, the commonest meaning of celibate is “voluntarily abstaining from sex,” the original reference to marriage so lost that the average English speaker recognizes no contradiction in the idea of a “celibate married couple.”

 

The Disuse of Marriage

Originally appeared in the Post on January 18, 1868

A writer in the last number of the North British Review enumerates startling facts in reference to what he terms “ the disuse of marriage” in the upper ranks of England, and draws some conclusions from those facts which assuredly are grave enough, and deserve at all events to be carefully pondered. His facts are these — and every one, we imagine, by reference to the last census and the annual reports of the Registrar General, can verify them or correct them for himself. The mere figures, however, are, we believe, unimpeachable. The number of women of mature years, i.e., above the age of twenty, who must remain single in consequence of the actual disproportion of the sexes in England and Wales is between 300,000 and 400,000. The number of adult women who actually are single is 1,537,000, of whom 1,230,000 are between twenty and forty years of age. “Of all adult women five per cent (he argues,) would naturally and voluntarily be spinsters; as a fact, 27 per cent, are so. Of women of marrying ages, i.e., between twenty and forty, in England, 58 per cent, are married, 39 per cent are spinsters, and 3 per cent are widows. In a word, two adult women out of every five are single.” It would appear, moreover, that a disproportionate number of these “involuntary celibates” belong to the higher and the upper-middle ranks, marriage and even pretty early marriage being the rule among the lower and middle classes with all who are not in domestic service. The writer traces the cause of this increase of involuntary spinsterhood to the spreading luxury of the age, and to the too prevalent sentiment on the part of indolent and self-indulgent young men in “society,” that there are many other luxuries much more difficult to forego [sic] than the luxury of a wife and home.

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Comments

  1. Another fascinating look at an interesting word. It seems current times are much kinder to the word in question this week, celibacy, than the distant past of (say) 1868 as excerpted here from the Post. I was a bit taken aback with the “get a move on” attitude of the times.

    Dare I say, this would have been an interesting topic to discuss with one of my favorite female writers of the 19th century, Fanny Fern, as a part of some genteel dinner conversation made possible by a quantum leap of time travel by a gentleman caller (me), back to the Civil War era for one evening. Please see Ben Railton’s ‘Considering History’ column of March 14, 2018. I’ve been reading various features by Ms. Fern ever since, and why not? We must keep ties with the 19th century if we’re to make even a little sense of the 21st.

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