Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan



January 6, 2007

"Polyamory" enters the Oxford English Dictionary, and tracking the word's origins

On September 14, 2006, after at least seven years of consideration, the Oxford English Dictionary finally added the word polyamory (and -ous and -ist) to its canon of the English language. It did so via its ongoing revision and supplement series.

This makes the word as officially a part of the English language as a word can be. By coincidence, this entry followed just two months after the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary adopted the word with some public fanfare.

Here is the OED entry:



polyamory, n.

orig. U.S.

Forms: 19- polyamory, 19- polyamoury. [< POLY- comb. form + classical Latin amor (see AMOUR n.1) + -Y suffix3, after POLYAMOROUS adj.
In form polyamoury prob. after French amour AMOUR n.1]

The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.

Etymology: [1992 J[ennifer] L. WESP Proposal for alt.poly-amory in alt.config (Usenet newsgroup) 21 May, I propose to form the group alt.poly-amory. It would be a place for people who have multiple lovers to talk about the various problems unique to us.] 1992 Re: Reasons not to be Monogamous in soc.singles (Usenet newsgroup) 28 May, Serial monogamy is often more risky than long term polyamory. 1998 Guardian 21 July II. 2/3 The burgeoning polyamoury community in the US — with its offshoot organisation in Britain — is supporting and promoting all kinds of polygamous relationships. 2005 Seattle Weekly (Nexis) 2 Mar. 75 [He] began preaching meditation, polyamory, and disco dancing as ways of unmooring oneself from earthly ties.


There is no reference in the etymology to Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart (born Diana Moore), whose seminal essay "A Bouquet of Lovers" two years earlier (in the Beltane [May] 1990 issue of the Neo-Pagan magazine Green Egg) is often credited with launching the word. The OED in fact wrote to Morning Glory in 1999 asking for her definition of the word, and, by her account, she replied:


The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved.


Notice that the OED indeed adopted the key parts of Morning Glory's phrasing in its definition. However, the word polyamory never actually appears in "A Bouquet of Lovers", only the adjective polyamorous (which appears seven times). The compilers of the OED are nothing if not literalists (literally!), which I guess is why they left her out.

The informative Wikipedia entry for polyamory does, however, claim, "There are no verifiable sources showing the word polyamory in common use until after alt.polyamory was created" (by Wesp in 1992).

The words polyamory, -ous, or -ist do not seem to have had any wide use before 1990[1], despite a very small scattering of offhand appearances; see December 2010 update below. I suspect that people who say otherwise are misremembering uses of "polyfidelity," which was coined by "Even Eve" Furchgott in the Kerista commune in the 1970s.

See also Joshua Bardwell's interesting history and analysis of "A Bouquet of Lovers".

Update January 19, 2007: Jennifer Wesp herself is thrilled to discover that she has just been immortalized in the OED. I asked her to describe how she came up with the word, and she writes:


Alan, you asked how I came into the word polyamory. The answer is that I invented it from the blue. I was having a flame war on alt.sex with Mikhail Zelany about the morality of having non-monogamous relationships, and (a) got tired of typing non-monogamy and (b) it wasn't a good piece of rhetoric to use a negative, hyphenated word to make a positive point.

So one night either in the Biophysics lab I worked in or the Astronomy computer lab where my lover Greg Lindahl worked, in the middle of composing a flame, I decided to make a new word.

After a couple months I got tired of the flame war and sort of liked the community that was developing around it, so I started the news group. Greg and I politicked a bit to get it widely picked up by sites we thought would find a following. I guess it worked. :-)

Although it's been decidedly inconvenient to be "That Jennifer" at parties, and I've changed my name in part to keep my coworkers and my sons' friends from googling me, as 15 minutes of fame goes, I'm pretty pleased with mine!


Added later: Here is one account of the gestation of the word and its predecessors, by Morning Glory's husband Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (dated 2009). And here is an audio interview of Oberon describing how he and Morning Glory came up with the word, and some of their other involvements in early poly history (this is the Polyamory Weekly podcast, Episode #168).

Added May 25, 2008: Longtime poly activist Cos has this to say:


The OED aren't just being "literalists". Note two other things about "A Bouquet of Lovers", the Green Egg article that has a reputation as being the source of the word polyamory:

1. "polyamorous", which does appear in the article, was introduced with a hyphen ("poly-amorous") in the original article. Later, online versions have mostly had the hyphen removed, but it shows that when they wrote it, they weren't yet comfortable with it as a "word".

2. Everywhere that the "polyamory" form could have appeared in that article, it instead says "polygamy". Clearly, if they'd had the word "polyamory" they'd have used it instead, so this is pretty clear evidence that they didn't have the word at the time.


Cos also comments,


...I remember being excited when I first saw [the word polyamory] appear in a mainstream newspaper in 1995, and for a few years I'd carefully watch for any new occurrences, but sometime around... 1999? I think, it became so common that I stopped.


Update, August 2010: Oberon Zell has sent me the following:


Regarding the first use of the term "polyamory," while it's true that Morning Glory's original "Bouquet of Lovers" article only coined the term "polyamorous," we followed that article immediately with a full Glossary of Relationship Terminology for a "Polycon" that summer at UC-Berkeley, where she and I (and the Church of All Worlds) were guests of honor and major presenters. In that Glossary we included not only "polyamory," but also "polyamorist":

POLYAMORY: (Greek poly=many; Latin amor=love) The practice, state or ability
of having multiple lovers at the same time. (Morning Glory Zell)

POLYAMOROUS: Inclined, capable and desiring of having multiple lovers at the
same time. (Morning Glory Zell)

POLYAMORIST: A person who is polyamorous, or who practices polyamory.

POLY: Short for polyamorous, usually used as an adjective.


Oberon dates this to August 1990; elsewhere he has said 1991. The undated (secondary?) versions of this document that I find online include "polyamory" and "polyamorous" but not the rest. So yes, it looks like the OED did mis-attribute the first use of the word.


UPDATE December 18, 2010: Earlier uses (of some forms) found. Google Books is an amazing thing. You can now search for occurrences of words in some 15 million scanned books (out of the estimated 130 million unique books in the world), plus lots of magazines, published since ever.

I searched today from Jan. 1, 1400, to Dec. 31, 1991, and found:

polyamory, polyamoury, poly amory, or poly amoury: Zero occurrences.

polyamorist, polyamourist, poly amorist, or poly amourist: One, from 1958. Here it is, in the massive book English Literature: Chaucer to Bernard Shaw by Alfred Charles Ward (aka A. C. Ward). Excerpt:


...If Henry VIII had not been a determined polyamorist to whom divorce or some more drastic means to annulment of marriage was a recurrent necessity, the break with Rome would probably not have come in his reign, [Thomas] More and others would have died naturally....


(Ward published similar histories of English literature earlier, and these may be different editions of the same material for all I know, particularly one from 1953, but my Google Books search did not hit these.)


polyamorous, polyamourous, poly amorous, or poly amourous: Seven, from 1969 to 1989. Here they are. The earliest of these is in the 1969 novel Hind's Kidnap: a pastoral on familiar airs by Joseph McElroy (who is still writing as of 2010). Excerpt:


...Maddy disqualifying John Plante, "You have to conclude the Family quote unquote is finished as a viable socio-entity because you're committed to your polyamorous roller tribe, so you can't even so to speak let me into court." Occupying, taking over, stealing me and my flat while I shook too much chervil into the eggs, pretty too....


That's all of it that's online, per Google's copyright arrangements.

UPDATE May 4, 2011: An instance of "polyamorous" in Italian has been found in a book from 1921; see comment #15 (from Julio) here.


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1 Before the early 1990s people in the modern multi-love movement, including me, floundered with such awkward mouthfuls as "utopian swinging" (now there's a contradiction in terms), "modern polygamy", "waterbrotherhood" (per Stranger in a Strange Land), "polymorphous perversity" (per Sigmund Freud), "synergamy" (per Robert Rimmer), and "the Harrad Experiment lifestyle" (referring to Robert Rimmer's most famous book).

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Julio said...

Thanks for your very important google research. Your hint was the basis for my result that Marinetti has also used the word 1921 in his autobiographical essays "L'alcòva d'acciaio" (S.283):

"Sono io che ti bevo e mangio tutta di baci minutissimi rapidissimi, Italia mia, donna-terra saporita, madre-amante, sorella-figlia, maestra d’ogni progresso e perfezione, poliamorosa - incestuosa, santa - infernale - divina!"


(Translation: "It is me who will fast drink and eat all of your small kisses, my Italy, delicious earth-woman, mother-lover, sister-daughter, mistress of every progress and perfection, polyamorous- incestuous, holy-infernal-divine!"

So the adjective "polyamorous" is 90 years old, at least.

Remarkable is also the use of the word in a magazine with such high circulation like the "New Scientist" (1989). It shows not only that the word was used in the academic milieu prior to 1990. "New Scientist" has over 200.000 copies, thousands of libraries all over the world offer this magazine. For that reason alone the word "polyamorous" was split in the wider intellectual public prior to 1990.

Additional, the well known "Gay Report" (1979) from Karla Jay and Allen Young shows that the self-description "polyamorous" was also used in the queer milieu in the 70s .

February 12, 2011 10:21 AM  
Blogger Suzann Panek Robins said...

Just wondering why we spend so much time talking about a word, rather than making love?

January 24, 2014 12:58 PM  

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