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The Seven-Year Itch: Its Meaning and Origin
The “seven-year itch” is an affliction many happily married couples dread. After seven years – as its very words imply - somebody in the relationship will develop a terrible case of roaming eyes.
On the other hand, if someone was accused of having a seven-year itch more than a century ago, he or she may have had to seek medical help.
In the strange, ever-changing lexicon of American English, the “seven-year itch” has evolved. Once a literal term to refer to a really bad rash, the phrase is now defined as a problematic situation in a relationship.
And who is to be credited for this recent change? No other than Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder and the popular 1950s movie that bears the phrase as its title.
The Birth of a Phrase
While the modern version of the seven-year itch can be traced to the title of a play and movie comedy, its original inception was much older. It’s not known exactly when it started or specifically where it started. It's speculated that it was a mid-19th century American invention.
According to Phrases.Org.Uk, it referred to a “particularly irritating and contagious skin complaint.” How seven years became associated with it is unclear. Some sites speculate that seven was merely a metaphorical term to describe how serious and irritating the itch was.
The site mentioned the itch – or more precisely, the rash – as being bacterial in nature and causing irritating red pimples on the face and body.
Eventually, the term stopped referring to the rash. This particular skin condition became easily treatable by the eve of the 20th century. As a result, its severity had been drastically reduced to a minor skin irritation. The "seven-year itch" moniker didn't apply to it anymore.
However, the term developed a connotative meaning (and, in many respects, became an idiom). As a result, the term began to refer to conditions not associated with skin ailments.
In 1845, an article from the Wisconsin Herald and Grant County Advertiser used the term to describe the growth of Mormonism in the state of Illinois (obviously the article depicted Mormons in a very negative way)..
Later in the 19th century, the term’s took on another connotative meaning. Although it still referred literally to a rash, it was defined as a consequence of someone's action. Some people believed the rash was a “punishment for antisocial behavior” (Phrase.org, 2011). Thus, seven-year itch became a code word to label social outcasts.
By 1920, however, as the rash became treatable, ad campaigns in newspapers began to report on the demise of the condition.
By World War I, the seven-year itch became associated with camp itch or army itch. It also started to go international. According to Phrase.org, when the US Army arrived in Paris, many civilians tried to avoid them fearing the condition was extremely contagious. Eventually, it would spread in France and Europe and come to be known as French itch.
Still, the original name was used in the United States. By 1920, however, as the rash became treatable, ad campaigns in newspapers began to report on the demise of the condition.
The name and the rash soon vanished from the American lexicon. Or so it was believed.
The Silver Screen Resurrect the Name
The seven-year itch found life -- and new meaning -- in the most unusual way. This time, it was associated with something outside its original medical origin.
Many websites dedicated to the subject credit the 1955 film The Seven-Year Itch as being the first to identify it as marital infidelity. In truth, the film was based on a play of the same name. The playwright, George Axelrod was the first to resurrect this term with a new meaning.
Still, it was Billy Wilder’s film – with the help of Marilyn Monroe – that popularized it. The story was about a straight-laced married man (played by Tom Ewell) working for a book publishing firm who becomes tempted by a vixen (Monroe’s character).
At the heart of the story is a book -- which the protagonist stumbles upon (the book in question was entitled “7-Year Itch”). The book’s content suggested men have extra marital affairs after seven years.
The movie is best remembered for an iconic scene in which Monroe’s character stands on a subway grate and has a rush of wind blow up her white dress. For the protagonist, it was an instantaneous – and seductive – peep show. It would be the one image most people would associate with the seven-year itch (both the movie and the term).
However, the real impact of the film goes beyond this legendary scene. The seven-year itch was now known as an inclination to become unfaithful after seven years of marriage (Phrase.Org, 2011).
Is it Really Seven Years?
Now that the term refers to a marital dilemma, one question remains: Does this event really happen after seven years?
Interestingly, some researchers have been trying to answer this question. Psychologists and researchers studied the phenomenon.and came to the conclusion that the “itch” may not be seven years.
Some researchers indicate it can appear after 10 years of marriage. Others claim married couples may exhibit this behavior after 11 months after exchanging wedding vows..
It may have been a terrible skin disease at one point and, presently, it may come to represent a desire for spouses to cheat. Whatever the case may be, the seven-year itch will possibly remain in the country’s lexicon for years to come.
Word and Phrase Origins
© 2016 Dean Traylor