Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

December 26, 2010

First appearance of the word "polyamorist": 1953!

When was the word polyamory first used, and by whom?

Word person that I am, I've had this thing for tracking it down. Especially because the multi-love movement was hobbled for three decades by lack of a clear name for itself before settling on "polyamory" in the early 1990s1.

The usual story is that the word was invented by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart in her article "A Bouquet of Lovers" in the Beltane (Spring) 1990 issue of the Neo-Pagan magazine Green Egg. She only introduced the form "polyamorous" there, but her partner Oberon Zell-Ravenheart recently wrote me to say that the two of them did use "polyamory" in a glossary that they handed out at a "Polycon" convention at UC/Berkeley in August 1990 (elsewhere he says 1991), where they were featured presenters. However, in 2006 the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (despite knowing about Morning Glory and corresponding with her) assigned priority for the word to Jennifer L. Wesp, for when she created the Usenet newsgroup alt.polyamory in May 1992. Read more here: "Polyamory" enters the Oxford English Dictionary.

Another piece of conventional wisdom is that the word was used occasionally since the 1960s. But I never found a single example and assumed that people were just misremembering "polyfidelity" (coined by "Even Eve" Furchgott in the Kerista community in the 1970s).

Well, Google Books is an amazing thing. Now you can search for words in some 15 million scanned books (out of the estimated 130 million unique books in the world) plus lots of serials, published since ever.

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

polyamory, polyamoury, poly amory, or poly amoury: Zero occurrences (not counting one later book that has a typo in its publication year).

polyamorist, polyamourist, poly amorist, or poly amourist: One, in editions of a book starting in 1953! Here it is — in the Illustrated History of English Literature, Volume 1 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, and the whole of subsequent English history might well have been different.

(Ward published similar histories of English literature before and after 1953, and this passage was reprinted in one from 1958. The 1953 book may be a republication of earlier material for all I know, but my Google Books search did not hit on these. Note that Google Books results are imperfect and often change.)

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

Most of these just seem to be cute, one-off wordplays, not references to any kind of movement or philosophy as we use the word today.

Update May 2011: A use in 1921 in Italian has been found; see comment #15 below, by Julio.


1 Before the early 1990s people, 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."




Anonymous Ken Haslam said...

Bravo Alan. Nice work.

Ken Haslam

December 26, 2010 7:40 AM  
Blogger KC said...

I want a polyamorous roller tribe!

December 26, 2010 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, wow. In a way, it feels nice that these words have been with us for that long, that it's not as recent a way of thinking as one might imagine. In another way, it makes me a little bit sad that it's been around for that long and it's taken up until about now to really find its way to the mainstream...

December 26, 2010 1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't find Hind's Kidnap in the Seattle Library, and used copies are a bit pricey, so I'm not going to pursue that now. However I must say none of these uses appear to qualify as using the term polyamory to mean the behavior we and Morning Glory mean: Multiple, consensual, concurrent, sexual, loving relationships.

Polyamorous roller tribes may not mean more than a promiscuous social group of young people, with no philosophical underpinnings.

And as far as Henry VIII is concerned, if he was a polyamorist, then the definition of secondary is someone who has just been decapitated. What he did was just serial monogamy with a vengence.

My number one candidate for the worst pre polyamory term for what we do is "consensual adultery." I think I have a talk show video where someone actually uses that term.

John U

December 26, 2010 6:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for looking that up! I find it fascinating to see the other contexts that people have used the word "polyamory". It's surprising to see how many different uses people have found for a word that means "many loves" - most of which have plenty to do with "many" but almost nothing to do with "love".

Also, thanks for mentioning the whole chronology issue with the coining of the word! That comes up often.

December 26, 2010 10:05 PM  
Blogger Anita Wagner Illig said...

Alan, what they all said - kudos!


December 27, 2010 11:00 AM  
Blogger The Rev Jester said...

Wait, wasn't it 1953? http://books.google.com/books?id=T_5ZAAAAMAAJ&q=%22polyamorist%22&dq=%22polyamorist%22&hl=en&ei=WzwcTcCYNofCsAP1z-3rCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA

December 30, 2010 3:06 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

> Wait, wasn't it 1953?

Yes indeed! Your search was better than mine. I've changed the article accordingly.

--Alan, Dec. 30, 2010.

December 30, 2010 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great research, thanks!

December 30, 2010 1:56 PM  
Anonymous Dawn Davidson said...

Awesome, Alan! Very interesting indeed. I agree with those who've said that Henry the VIII is hardly a good polyamorous role model, however. *wry smile* Definitely not what "we" mean when we say it these days!

January 03, 2011 8:01 PM  
Anonymous Eric Cote said...

Alan, you got me curious. I did some research. There is also something that comes up pre-1990 if you look for the French expression "poly amoureux".

January 04, 2011 10:52 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Okay, I searched as Éric suggested and found this, in the book La Rochefoucauld and the Seventeenth-Century Concept of Self by Vivien Thweatt. It's in a footnote there, where Thweatt quotes a 1971 article by Joséphine Grieder ("To be polytheistic is to be poly-amorous"). Grieder's article was "Le Rôle de la religion dans la société de l'Astrée," published in the journal XVIIe Siècle. Oof.

January 05, 2011 12:23 PM  
Blogger Daniel Cardoso said...

Fantastic work, thank you so much... Now back to rewriting part of my Thesis :P

January 28, 2011 1:56 PM  
Blogger Awatkins said...

While never directly called Polyamory, the lifestyle is visible as far back as July 1941 in Robert Heinlein's story "Methuselah's Children" which featured Lazarus Long and the Howard families. While not as open as his later stories, like 1961's "Stranger in a Strange Land" 1973's "Time Enough for Love" 1980's "Number of the Beast" or 1985's "Cat Who Walks Through Walls", the themes are present and noticeable. Even earlier Heinlein wrote "For Us the Living" in 1939, but it was not published until after his death.

"Stranger in a Strange" land in particular was massive and open about its polyamorous message, getting preachy at times, while in the other novels it was simply a matter of course in most cases that love and sex were something to be shared and not hoarded closely.

Indeed, the Ravenheart clan/tribe/nest mentioned above were founded and based in Heinlein's philosophy. A group called Atl, a "waterbrotherhood," which Oberon Zell founded based on Stranger's Church of All Worlds, was started in 1962. In 1968 they incorporated as The Church of All Worlds. Zell and Morning Glory were married in 1973. The rest is history.

January 29, 2011 1:09 PM  
Anonymous Julio said...

(Perhaps this a better place for my comment than your original article about "Polyamory in the Oxford dictionary".)

The Italian Futurist Tommaso Marinetti has 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!"

The meaning here is - without an ethical connotation - only "many loving". So the adjective "polyamorous" is 90 years old, at least.

The question is now, if the word was used for self description by the European Aestethic Avant-Garde (Dada, Futurism, Surealism) in the first half of the 20th century - given the diffusion of a non-monogamous lifestyle in this environment.

(More on the history of the word on the Website of the German Poly Association.)

May 04, 2011 10:17 AM  

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