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This is my first time on this forum and I think I screwed-up my first posting so I'll do it again!

How did the word 'adultery' come to used as a translation of the Greek word 'moichatai' in the Bible? All the other words associated with adultery like 'adulterate', 'adulteration' mean spoiling of a pure substance so how did this become to mean marital infidelity?


  • The two senses were present in the source of adultery and adulteration — Classical Latin VERB adulterare and NOUN adulterium.

    The earliest recorded use in the OED is in a legal Statue of about 1325. It names the marital crime of adultery using the Anglo French term aduoterie. Other spellings found in Anglo-Norman documents were avouterie and advoutrie. The manuscripts of Chaucer from around 1400 include the spellings Auotrie and adultrie.

    Medieval English scribes weren't consistent in spelling, and were sometimes but not consistently thinking about the French verb avoutre 'commit adultery'. Later writers and printers decided to base the form and spelling on the Classical Latin.

    The NOUN adulteration and the VERB adulterate with the 'add impurity' meaning were taken from French much later. The OED records 1502 for the NOUN and 1526 for the VERB.

    The etymology of the Latin is ad 'to' + alterare 'change'.

  • Thanks but this is not helpful.
    I still don't see how adultery can mean marital infidelity if all the other meaning don't.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited July 2018

    The meaning of 'marital infidelity' originated in Classical Latin. It's the oldest meaning in English, and by far the most common. Adulterate and adulteration are relatively rare words.

    For example, the OED places adulterate in Band 4 — words which are not so rare as to be unrecognised by most speakers, but are confined to specific style and subject matter. (The commonest words are in Band 8. Words in Band 1 are rare in the extreme and totally unrecognisable.)

    There was recently a scandal in Britain when some horse-meat was put into food where there should be nothing but beef. There was a great deal of written and spoken reporting and discussion, but I don't think the word adulterate was ever used.

    Personally, I've never seen these words anywhere but in works of social history describing food manufacturing practices.

    So, the question to ask about English is:

    Why was the meaning of 'dilute' taken from Latin?

    As to why there are two meanings, this is a question about Latin. I don't know of any published explanation. I would guess that the Romans invented a metaphor of diluting a blood-line.

    I've found that the OED places adultery in Band 5. These are words which belong in educated speech and writing, but they're not restricted in use like Band 4 words.

    In less formal speech and writing, the word cheating or the phrase was unfaithful are more often used than (commit) adultery. But even a non-technical account of a divorce case must use the word adultery if appropriate.

  • My problem is why is there a close connection between these three words but also a total unconnected relationship. How did the the other two 'rare' words come to mean nothing to do with infidelity?

  • Ask the Romans. I've told you my guess — that they saw adultery as a dilution of the bloodline.

    The 'close connection' between the three words is easy to understand. Modern languages formed words based on Latin words. But instead of diverging from Latin forms, they were made over time to resemble more and more closely the original Latin adulterare and adulterium.

    There's no 'problem' — other than the obvious problem that the past is in the past. We just can't go back in time and search for a Roman who might be able to explain the use of the words to us.

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