There has been much prurient interest in Britain in the court case concerning the pop singer George Michael, who was convicted last week of a “lewd act” in a public lavatory at the Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills. There was comment on the way in which most newspapers described the offence; some put it so delicately that its exact nature was obscure. Other comment focused on the word lewd itself, which wouldn’t be one the British press or courts would employ in such a case. It would have been described (in the curiously nineteenth-century euphemistic phrases still in favour in such situations) as “gross indecency” or “indecent exposure”.
Lewd is the most negative of all the words that refer to having or arousing sexual desire, such as lascivious, lecherous, licentious, lustful, prurient, salacious, and wanton. Dictionaries give the main sense as something like “inclined to, characterized by, or inciting to lust or lechery” (to quote the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary) but add a subsidiary one of “obscene, indecent”. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the main sense as “lascivious”, which has the merit of brevity, but little else, as surely that word is even less likely to be known to the enquirer than lewd, forcing him or her to the extra effort of turning that up in turn, where it is defined as “inciting to or evoking lust”.)
But my decidedly unsalacious reason for picking on lewd is that it’s a word with an odd history, and one that has definitely gone down in the world. It’s one of the oldest in the English language, dating from at least the year 900. But we don’t know its earlier history. Some say it derives from late Latin, but others disagree. It appears to have no clear parentage, perhaps appropriate when you think of its modern senses.
It referred at first in a neutral way to someone who was not a clerk in holy orders, a lay person. Because so much knowledge, particularly the ability to read and write, was in the hands of the clergy at that time (our word clerical in the modern sense of an office worker comes from this circumstance), it soon acquired the allied meaning of “unlearned; ignorant”. When Thomas Malory wrote in Le Mort d’Arthur about 1470: “Thou hast said thy message, the which is the most villainous and lewdest message that ever man heard sent unto a king”, the sense here is this one of ignorance, with nothing of its modern implications of lasciviousness. There was once a set phrase learned and lewd, meaning “everybody”, that is, both those who were learned and those who were not.
The next stage seems to have been to associate lack of learning with other negative characteristics. In the Authorised Version of the Bible there is a reference in Acts to “The Jews which believed not ... took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort ... and assaulted the house of Jason” and here the meaning is “unprincipled, good-for-nothing, worthless, wicked”. It could also mean “ill-mannered; ill-bred”. It was perhaps not an entirely obvious but nonetheless a relatively short step from here to “lascivious”, though this sense seems to have existed in parallel with the others from early times — Chaucer has “Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye” as early as 1386.
The OED notes that this last meaning is “the surviving sense”, but that entry was written at about the end of last century. Since then it has gone even further downhill, with the linked sense of something obscene or indecent having being added.