Good words gone bad: chaste

I spent Friday night and  then yesterday morning at my 3-hour glucose screening reading through Rose Gordon’s Fort Gibson Officer’s trilogy. I don’t normally read a lot of American-set books or Westerns, specifically, mostly because a lot of my early exposure to romance novels were Westerns, and once I found other subgenres the Westerns I had read began to seem painfully low-rent (macho men I would personally want nothing to do with, lots of Stockholm Syndrome plots, lots of native man/white woman stories, etc.). The  premises on this set of books seemed interesting, though, and since the first one was free I figured I’d give them a shot. Obviously since I read all three I liked them well enough, even though I don’t know how much time the author spent really researching the clothing  of the period, which is a trigger for me since, as a costumer, I spend a lot of time researching period clothing even if I don’t spend pages writing about it. But in these books the first mention of a corset was the third one, and each of the heroines was supposedly a relatively wealthy woman. Um. Not so sure that in 1845 ladies, even in the West, ran around with nothing under their dresses but a chemise. But I let that go because it was a very minor detail and the author didn’t dwell on the clothing.

Then I got to the third book, which was in some ways my favorite of the three, and a repeated misuse of the word “chaste” just…irked me.

First, let me share with you my understanding of the word, which goes back to my high school freshman English class and the teacher’s lecture on it while we were reading I believe Shakespeare (or maybe Mallory): “chaste” refers to a woman having no sexual relations outside of marriage. For an unmarried woman, chastity can be equated with celibacy, but for a married woman it cannot–as long as the only man she is having sex with is her husband.

That has been my understanding of the word for almost 20 years, and any time I have used it has been with that meaning in mind.

The scenario in which what I perceived as misuse came up in book 3; after the wedding night, the groom starts feeling like maybe he hadn’t given her much of a choice about whether they had sex at all and decides he doesn’t want to have any more sex unless and until they fall in love. But he doesn’t really verbalize any of this except the not having sex part, so the bride assumes it’s because she’s not a virgin anymore, and she keeps using the term “unchaste” for that. In like three different places in the book.

This bothered me endlessly, not quite enough to put the book down but just about, because it is so contrary to my understanding of the word and how it is meant to be used. She had married him; therefore she could not possibly be “unchaste” after sex with her husband.

So I had to go look up the actual definition of the word to see if she was misusing it or if I was misunderstanding it. From

1. refraining from sexual intercourse that is regarded as contrary to morality or religion; virtuous.

2. virgin.

3. not engaging in sexual relations; celibate.

4. free from obscenity; decent: chaste conversation.

5. undefiled or stainless: chaste, white snow.

It’s really definitions 1-3 that concern us here.

Obviously the first definition is the one I am familiar with. But it appears that our language recognizes two definitions that would, in fact, support the author’s use (in the context the heroine could have meant either non-virginal or non-celibate when she said “unchaste”).

So who is right here? Do I have a needlessly narrow view on the definition of the word, or is this a case where the wrong usages just overwhelmed the correct use in common vernacular and diluted the power of the word? Is my reluctance, even with evidence of popular usage, to accept the other subdefinitions just a grammarian’s grudge from 1560 (the first documented usage to mean virginal/celibate as opposed to merely not having sex outside of morality/religion)? Would readers mistake my meaning if I used the word chaste, meaning definition 1, for one of the other definitions?

This is one of the points of language upon which my husband and I disagree vehemently. He is very much of the “language changes, that keeps it from dying, embrace it” mentality whereas I genuinely struggle with bastardized meanings that basically redefine/undercut the entire point of the word, which in this case was to differentiate between celibacy and “moral” sexual relations. If you make “celibate” a definition of the term that was created to mean “moral sexual relations,” then you are once more conflating ideas that should be discrete. So how can anyone communicate clearly and precisely with very specific terms if those terms keep getting co-opted to mean the very thing they were intended not to mean?

I don’t intend to sound like we should all be speaking Chaucerian English here; I realize language needs to change. But some variant-definitions are not merely pointless but genuinely detrimental to clear communication, and those are the ones that bother me. No wonder my freshman lit teacher was so up in arms about this one! The dictionary is clearly not going to be helpful to students trying to figure out what, exactly, the term meant in context.

Just for the record, dear readers: while I will attempt to no longer judge writers who use “chaste” for celibate or virginal, since it is clearly not the misuse I believed it to be, I will never use the word in my own writing to mean anything other than its original and primary definition.



Filed under Rants and Storms, Research, Writing

3 responses to “Good words gone bad: chaste

  1. Writers who are imprecise weaken the language; keep your standards up. You seem to be willing to check things out if you come upon a use of a word that feels wrong. And willing to accept possible new/better meanings.

    They will take me to my grave kicking and screaming about ‘hopefully,’ ‘impact,’ ‘alright,’ and ‘alot.’

    I fear no one will understand me by then.

    • Weaken is the PERFECT word for what sloppy usage does to language.

      As to your peeves – I am certain I agree on the latter two, and off to look the first two up in my various editing dictionaries. They are not flag words for me, but is that because I am one of the unwashed hordes misusing them or because I have such a crystalline understanding of them I can’t even see how it’s possible for them to be misused? lol. time to find out….

      • LOL I misuse both hopefully and impact in the modern ways. Probably both in formal writing at one time or another. This might be a generational thing where because I have heard them used these ways my entire life, they don’t sound wrong. The argument against hopefully is more grammatically compelling than the one against using impact as a verb.

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