On Shacking Up

A local woman was recently discomfited when police discovered the remains of her missing daughter in a little garden behind the house where she resided with a boyfriend. The daughter, age three, had been reported missing in June, and the mother, age 35, had been jailed in early August for refusing to answer the questions of Child Protective Services. Soon thereafter, the daughter’s remains were discovered and the boyfriend, a convicted felon, age 51, was arrested for possession of a firearm.  The woman and her boyfriend were just the other day indicted on charges of injury to a child by omission and tampering with a human corpse.

This is at least the second child this woman has lost, since in 2005 her son, age five, was found with “head trauma so severe that the boy’s brain seemed to be seeping out of his skull.” This was on top of severe contusions, broken bones, and “lacerations on his liver and spleen.”  The woman and her then husband, stepfather to the boy, told police that the lad had “fallen off the toilet,” but she later recanted and her then husband went to jail.  Local activists are now demanding that he be given a retrial.

The father of the dead girl was a fourth man who, we are told, cared for the girl until he died this spring, whereupon the waif passed briefly into the hands of his sister.  As the sister’s claims to custody were weak and disputed, the poor girl soon passed into the hands of her mother and, not long after, out of this world.

This sad story will prompt many reflections, but it set me to thinking about the phrase “shacking up,” since the act that passes under that name seems to have played no small part in this multifaceted tragedy.  I was long under the mistaken impression that “shacking up” referred to an unmarried couple temporarily living together, and that it harkened back to the days when such temporary and unsanctified unions were confined to the lowest classes and the “shacks” in which they lived.  Fornication was, of course, implicit in the term, but I thought (mistakenly) that this was a case of what rhetoricians call metonymy, or a reference to contents by the name of the container (e.g. calling fifty-five gallons of oil a “barrel”).

The connection between “shacking up” and a shack is, however, only indirect, since both terms are descended from the old American adjective shackly.  Here is how this word is described by the Indiana poet Horace P. Biddle:

“Shackly, meaning loose, shaky, rickety, seems to be purely an Americanism.  It is not found in any of the old English dictionaries, but has long been in use in this country.”*

I’m afraid Biddle is wrong about the absence of the word from old English dictionaries, but his definition is certainly correct.  Shackly means loosely joined and poorly constructed, and is most likely a colloquial form of the word shaky.  The word “shack” is almost certainly an Americanism of more recent (late nineteenth century) origin, and it of course means a low-quality building of shackly, which is to say shaky, construction.

The essence of “shacking up” is, therefore, the shaky, loose, and impermanent character of the sexual connection, and the phrase has no direct relation to unmarried cohabitation in substandard housing.  The earliest print usage I have found is in 1930, by which time it was almost certainly a vulgar idiom.  Both the word and the practice spread to a much larger population during the mass mobilization of World War Two.  Here, for instance, is a comment by one veteran:

“I used to hear these guys bitch they thought their old lady was cheating on them, and all the time these same guys were shacking up with any bag they could find.”**

This is from an article on the control of venereal disease in the journal of the Navy’s Hospital Corps:

“The salty guys will eventually get around to the subject of their experiences of shacking-up with some tough baby, or sordid experiences in bars, whore-houses, autos or cheap hotels.”***

One outstanding problem is a possible connection between “shacking up” and the phrase “love shack,” which most people nowadays know from the eponymous song by the popular singing group the B-52s.  First recorded in 1989, this is said to be the band’s signature tune, and it is almost certainly responsible for the many vendors of erotic paraphernalia who have since named their shops love shacks.

I have found only one earlier usage of the phrase “love shack,” this also in the title of a song. In 1926, copyright was filed on a tune called Just a Little Love Shack and You, but I am afraid the lyrics of that no-doubt delightful ditty are lost. This was, however, one of several songs written by Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s to celebrate childless romance in a little “hideaway,” “love nest” or “bungalow built for two.”  “Love Nest” was the title of a very popular foxtrot that was first performed on Broadway in 1920, and that went on to become the theme song of the Burns and Allen radio show.  Irving Berlin’s “A Little Bungalow” (1925) was featured in the Marx brother’s comedy The Cocoanuts (1929).  If you read the refrain of that song carefully, you will note a hint of salacity.

“A little bungalow an hour or so from anywhere.
A little cozy nest, the kind that’s best for two.
. . . .
There’ll be a room in blue, the one that you would occupy
It’s understood that I would occupy it too”

The couple is not exactly “shacking up” in this “cozy nest,” but their liaison certainly has an uncertain, tentative, I daresay shackly, quality.

I wonder if there is a little garden out back.


*) Horace P. Biddle, American Boyhood (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1876), p. 206.

**) John McPartland, Sex in Our Changing World (New York: Reinhart, 1947), p. 233.

***) Fred E. Stewart, “V. D. Control: The Problem and Some Answers,” Hospital Corps Quarterly, 22 (1949), pp. 35-36.

10 thoughts on “On Shacking Up

  1. Pingback: On Shacking Up | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: On Shacking Up | Reaction Times

  3. ‘The essence of “shacking up” is, therefore, the shaky, loose, and impermanent character of the sexual connection…’

    Indeed. However you may be looking for its derivation in the wrong place.

    ‘Shak doun, shake down’ is Scots for ‘any makeshift or temporary bed, orig. one made by strewing straw, heather, clothes or the like on the floor (Sc. 1782 J. Sinclair Ob. Sc. Dial. 173, 1808 Jam.). Gen.Sc., later adopted by St. Eng.’ [Scots National Dictionary.]

    This usage was certainly known in literate America through Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Guy Mannering’, in which he writes: ‘The farmer lay down on a sort of shake-down, as the Scotch call it, or bed-clothes disposed upon some straw.’

    It is but a short step from there to ‘shack up’ as the practice of temporary cohabitation.

    • That’s interesting. I saw one possible Scots origin for the word “shackly,” but then another place traced it to Devon. This phrase “shak down” seems to connote the same notion of improvisation and impermanence. “Down” makes sense since one lies down on such a heap of odds and ends, but I’m curious about “up.” Nowadays there is, of course, the “hook up,” but the expression “meet up” has been around for a long time as well. We also say that people “mess up,” “screw up,” etc. I can usually think up a wholly fictitious explanation for such usages, but right now I’m stumped by this one.

      • Re: ‘…a possible Scots origin for the word “shackly” ‘, it’s not in either the Scottish National Dictionary or the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, hence not in Jamieson’s. This does not render the derivation impossible. The dictionary-makers never get everything. However, in Scots I would expect the adjective to be ‘shaky’ or ‘shakkie’ and the adjective would be ‘shakillie’ or similar. ‘Shackly’ just does not strike me as Scots (or expected English) usage – however the West country (Hardy country) dialects running down through Devon to Brythonic Cornwall may well produce some surprises
        On the other hand, perhaps the large Scandinavian, Dutch or German diaspora in the USA may have affected usage, or effected a new usage.

      • I actually want to believe Biddle that it is an Americanism. It’s a word for which they would have found a great many uses on the frontier, and truth be told, there is something rather shackly about the whole country.

      • Yeah…I’ll go along with Biddle too: an Americanism (perhaps Scando-Dutch-Deutsch, perhaps not. Who knows?) I will agree with you about the country too… 🙂

  4. PS: When a personal relationship is involved, it’s usually not just ‘shack up’ is it? It’s ‘shack up with’, ‘meet up with’, ‘hook up with’, ‘screw up with’, ‘break up with’ …etc.

  5. PS: On another subject altogether; I have just discovered your early Orthosphere post ‘On Ranting’. https://orthosphere.wordpress.com/2015/10/20/on-ranting/

    The finest usage of this word in the happy sense of which I am aware is in the chorus of Robert Burns’ birthday ode to himself: Rantin, Rovin Robin

    Robin was a rovin boy,
    Rantin, rovin, rantin, rovin,
    Robin was a rovin boy,
    Rantin, rovin Robin!


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