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The History of the Word Rape
by Mark Peters
Language is always changing, but there are some words that decent, non-evil people want to protect: One is “rape.”
The word "rape" came under attack when Republicans—as part of The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act—tried to make so-called “forcible rape” the only kind of rape that would entitle women to health coverage for an abortion. Jason Linkins summed the issue up well in HuffPo: “People thought this was insane, because it was.” In response to the outrage, the language was changed from “forcible rape” to plain “rape,” making a noxious bill marginally less so. As you probably know by now, the best response to the issue came from the always wonderful Kristen Schaal, who brilliantly spoofed the anti-woman crowd: “You’d be surprised how many drugged, underaged, or mentally handicapped young women have been gaming the system. Sorry, ladies, the free abortion ride is over.”
The politicians eventually dropped the language from the bill, but the situation serves as a reminder that “rape” has always been both a battleground of a word and an atrocity of a crime. I’m not sure a goofball columnist like myself is remotely qualified to deal with the history of this word in English, but I hope I might shed some light on current battles over its meaning. Language always struggles to convey reality, but that struggle is impossible when reality is at its most repugnant.
Over time, the various meanings of “rape” make our current situation seem simple and clear cut. In Old English, a rape was a district in Sussex. In the 1300s “rape” meant the root of a turnip, a type of medieval dish, and a synonym for “speed”—being “in a rape” meant “in a hurry.” Also in the 1300s, the current meaning was first foreshadowed, as the Oxford English Dictionary starts finding examples meaning “The act of taking something by force; esp. the seizure of property by violent means; robbery, plundering.” Sometimes this meant an animal raping—meaning “devouring”—its prey. This 1706 quote shows this seizing, violent meaning in action: “When Kings their Crowns without Consent obtain, 'Tis all a mighty Rape, and not a Reign.” “Rape and pillage” fits with this sense, as does another use from 1673: “Unjust Men! that in your Nameless Pamphlets would Rape us of our Reputation.”
It wasn’t until the 1400s that the sense of “rape” as a man forcing a woman to have sex with him took hold. The word often referred to kidnapping as much as sexual violation: women were “raped away,” in one of many uses of “rape” that is close to “seize.” This is the meaning we find in Alexander Pope's mock-epic poem "The Rape of the Lock," which involves the theft of a lock of hair.
Depending on your time period, culture, country, or state, the legal meaning could vary widely. In more awful times, it used to be considered “impossible” for a husband to rape his wife, as seen in this 1891 quote: “The law allows her husband to commit abduction, imprisonment and rape upon her.” There are many sad footnotes to the history of this word: though “rape-happy” is found back in 1953, “rape counseling” isn’t mentioned till 1972. It's shocking now, but “rape” continued to develop positive meanings over the years, including "To transport with delight, to enrapture." These lines from 1649 could not sound more bizarre today: "One Kisse of hers Makes me contemplate of a future happinesse That rapes me to an Extasie of pleasure."
Aside from congressional scumbags, the blame for a term like “forcible rape” can be laid at the door of other terms like “date rape,” which added shades of grey to the issue of rape—necessary or unnecessary shades, depending on your viewpoint. The similar term “statutory rape” is much older; it’s first found in 1898. Other recent variations make “date rape” seem like strong, clear language. Grant Barrett’s Double-tongued Dictionary records “bandwidth rape,” which involves the theft of files and info from someone’s Internet connection. There’s also “stay rape,” which is used “...to describe how you feel when someone overstays their welcome. It has the following subsets: Aggravated Stay Rape—When they’re especially annoying. Statutory Stay Rape—When they bring their kids. Date Stay Rape—When it’s a date who won’t leave. You get the idea.” Recently, the TSA’s enhanced pat-downs inspired the term “gate rape.”
There are probably dozens or hundreds of similar terms, but I have little interest in looking them up or sharing them with you. I usually can’t get enough of inappropriate language and slangy invention, but I never use a term like “gate rape.” It just seems too insulting to anyone who’s been "rape raped" (as Schaal would put) and to the concept of rape itself. My list of taboo words is smaller than most people’s, but “humorous” rape terms are on it.
When thinking about and legislating something as horrible as rape, we have more to fear than tone-deaf politicians who want to make raped women pay for their own rape-caused abortions. Language itself lets us down. The lexicographer in me knows that words change and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. The human being is me feels like it’s important to not to muddy the waters of what “rape” means too much. The real tragedy is that we need such a word at all.
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