Posted by: Dutch | February 26, 2010

Seven-year itch

Meaning

The inclination to become unfaithful after seven years of marriage.

Origin

Marilyn Monroe

The Seven Year Itch is best-known to us as the title of the 1955 film, starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell and directed by Billy Wilder. The plot of has Ewell’s character working for a company that is about to publish a book suggesting that a many men have extra-marital affairs after seven years of marriage – called the “7-Year Itch”. The film contains one of the most famous images in cinema history – Monroe’s dress blowing up over a subway grating. That supposed urge for infidelity after seven years of marriage is the meaning we now have for this phrase. It is now often extended to refer to an urge to move on from any situation, and not even limited to those of seven years’ duration.

George Axelrod, who wrote the play on which the film was based, didn’t coin the phrase though. It came from an earlier US source. The original seven-year itch wasn’t a condition that supposedly began after seven years, but one that supposedly lasted for seven years. Seven-year itch had been known in the USA since the early 19th century as the name of a particularly irritating and contagious skin complaint. The name was well enough known by 1845 for the condition to be used as a metaphor for all that is annoying. For example, this item from that year, from the Wisconsin Herald and Grant County Advertiser:

“When Illinois caught Mormonism off Missouri, she caught something worse than the seven year itch. Job sitting in the ashes and scratching himself amongst the potsherds, was infinitely more comfortable than poor Illinois now is, burning and festering under the scab of Mormonism.”

The condition, which was bacterial in nature – causing highly irritating red pimples on the face and body, is now so easily treated as to have been virtually forgotten. In the 19th and early 20th centuries though it was viewed as being so bad that it was used as an appropriate imagined punishment for antisocial behaviour – “he should be given the seven-year itch and not be allowed to scratch”. The difficulty of getting any relief from the condition was also expressed in the simile – “as close as the seven-year itch”.

– Sincere thanks to Gary Martin of The Phrase Finder

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