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Seven-year itch

Posted by ESC on December 02, 2002

In Reply to: Seven-year itch posted by ESC on November 30, 2002

: : : What is the origin of the expression "seven -year itch"? When was it first used?

: : See the previous discussion at:

: : bulletin_board 10 messages 1019.html

SEVEN-YEAR ITCH - "Used to describe a husband's or wife's urge to stray from his or her mate after seven years of marriage, this expression appears to have been invented by American playwright George Axelrod in his play 'The Seven Year Itch' and further popularized by the film version starring Marilyn Monroe . Word and phrase hunters haven't been able to turn up any earlier use of the words in a sexual context, although seven-year itch had been used to describe a poison ivy itch that supposedly recurred once every seven years." From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

I don't think the "poison ivy itch" part is correct but otherwise Mr. Hendrickson is on the money.

This phrase was researched by William Safire and he gives the details in "Watching My Language: Adventures in the Word Trade" (Random House, New York, 1997). The expression "seven-year itch," in various forms, referring to a skin malady is old. Henry David Thoreau wrote, in 1854: "These may be but the spring months in the life of the race. If we have had the seven-years' itch,' we have not seen the seventeen-year locust yet in Concord." Other early uses: " 'Dialect Notes' noted in a 1907 New Hampshire usage. 'You're worse than the seven years' itch." And poet Carl Sandburg, in his 1936 'The People, Yes,' caught the cadence of the American dialect by using the phrase in what seems to be a physical-annoyance sense: 'May you have the sevenyear itch,' was answered, 'I hope your wife eats crackers in bed.'"

But Mr. Safire learned that the use of the term "seven-year itch" for sexual unrest after seven years' of marriage was an invention of playwright George Axelrod. "The Seven Year Itch" was the title of the 1952 Broadway play and the movie, made three years later, starring Marilyn Monroe and (Kentuckian) Tom Ewell. Mr. Axelrod heard the expression while "writing jokes for a hillbilly comedian called Rod Brassfield." The phrase ran through his head while Mr. Axelrod was "desperately seeking a title for the play I had just finished." His character originally was married 10 years but the playwright changed it to seven.

"Why seven years, not six or eight? Because seven years has a historical basis: In Genesis, Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dream of 'seven years of great plenty' followed by 'seven years of famine.'." And so forth.

Mr. Safire includes a letter from a reader who says: "The 'seven year itch' has its origins with a microbe known as Sarcoptes scabiei. More commonly called 'scabies.' The bug produces an itching skin irritation that before modern drugs lasted, on average - you guessed it - seven years."

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