Promiscuous is generally taken to mean indiscriminate and nonselective, and between 1860 and 1970 was most commonly applied to a woman who was not overparticular about the men with whom she enjoyed coition. The word originally meant mixed, being derived from the Latin miscere, just like miscellany, mestizo or miscegenation, but it has always implied mixed by chance, mixed without method, formula or design.
Thomas Tryon was a seventeenth-century social reformer who advocated a vegetable diet and abstention from intoxicating drink, and who told his readers that endless mischief resulted when a man gobbled and guzzled anything that was set before him,
“So that every sort, both of meats and drinks, passes into the stomach promiscuously; the sentinels and guards being as it were drunken or stupefied.”*
Tryon advised his readers to eat with a discriminating palate, and to safeguard their stomachs with dietary watchmen who were sober, vigilant, and very hard to get past.
“For if this gate or common passage be kept from being violated or forced upon by adulterers and thieves, and that no unclean thing enters, then all the whole body and mind is sound, healthy and free from all cloudy and burthensom diseases.”
From promiscuity in diet it was but a step to promiscuity in coition, both cases being marked by an unfastidious disinclination to turn up one’s nose or turn anyone down. Men and women who congregated in public places of easy admission were also collectively described as promiscuous, not because of they were personally averse to discrimination, although they may have been, but because such public places of easy admission were, as we nowadays say, inclusive. Just about anyone could go there, so just about anyone did.
The eighteenth-century Christian poet Gilbert West describes as a “promiscuous throng” the motley crowd that packed into “temples of pleasure,” the doors of which “to every idle foot stood wide.”
“And ever on the way mote he espy
Men, women, children, a promiscuous throng
Of rich, poor, wise and simple, low and high,
By land, by water, passing aye along
With mummers, antics, music, dance and song,
To pleasure’s numerous temples that beside
The glistening streams, or tufted groves among,
To every idle foot stood open wide,
And every gay desire with various joys supplied.”**
* * * * *
I was set to thinking about the word promiscuous when I read this line in a newspaper printed in a town just over the river a hundred years ago.
“From what can be learned about eight or ten darkies were having a game and fight ensued in which there was some permiscuous shooting and Haines was killed.”***
The “permiscuous” shooting that ended the life of poor Cavitt Haines was evidently promiscuous in the same way that the diet deplored by Thomas Tryon was promiscuous. It was a shooting without method, formula or design. As I will presently show you, this was not a typographic error, for the word permiscuous was once a common colloquialism. It appears to me that it combines the word permissive, which anciently meant to remove restrictions, and the word promiscuous, which describes the indiscriminate mixing that occurs when restrictions are removed.
Christian theology used to explain the promiscuous mixture of good and evil in this world as the result of God’s “permissive will.” This is, for instance, how John Milton explained the fact that God allowed the serpent to deceive Eve in the Garden. God removed the restriction on lying and permitted men and angels to deceive one another, with the result that we find in this world a promiscuous mixture of the false and the true.
“For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone,
By his permissive will, through Heaven and Earth.”†
* * * * *
If Louisa May Alcott is to be trusted, permiscuous was a term in the American negro dialect that meant spontaneous, artless and unplanned. Thus Alcott places this line in the mouth of an American negro who, without thinking, spontaniously saved another negro from drowning in a flood.
“I though I was dreamin’, and only had wits enough to give a sort of permiscuous grab at him.”††
The word permiscuous was not, however, unique to the negro dialect, for Charles Dickens placed it in the mouth of the busybody Betsy Cluppins when he has her say,
“I walked in . . . and went, in a permiscuous manner, upstairs, and into the back room.”
The context of this statement makes it clear that Dickens is using the word permiscuous to mean natural, artless, and without the design of eavesdropping on the conversation on which Betsy Cluppins did, in fact, eavesdrop. Cluppins is a character in Dicken’s Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which was first published in 1836, and we may suppose that Cluppin’s diction was fairly faithful to the English vernacular of that day.††† Indeed the word permiscuous was not new in 1836. The earliest printed example of permiscuous that I have found appeared in a piece of doggerel published in The London Magazine of 1750.
* * * * *
I do not recall hearing or reading the word permiscuous before I read it, this morning, in that story of the fatal shooting of Cavitt Haines, but I now see that the journalist Barbara Walters used it in an interview with Hugh Hefner, that paragon of promiscuity. In testimony before a congressional committee, Walters is quoted as having asked the notorious libertine and pornographer,
“Would you invite your daughter to one of your permiscuous parties?”§
(In case you are interested, Hefner said that he would not.)
I think it is possible that Walters unwittingly re-invented a word that had fallen out of use when she permiscuously re-combined the words permissive and promiscuous. Benjamin Spock had published his book on the “permissive parenting style” in 1946, when Walters was seventeen years old, and the cultural revolution that followed was very often described as the emergence of a “permissive society.” Hefner’s “playboy philosophy” was also, obviously, deeply connected to the popular understanding that a promiscuous woman was, like one of Hefner’s bunnies, not overparticular about the men with whom she enjoyed coition.
It seems to me that there is much to be said for this old and expressive word, especially today when permiscuity is such a notable feature in the cultural landscape. Indeed, the word encapsulates a lesson of the cultural revolution through which we seem still to be passing. A permissive society grows promiscuous, not only in its sexual relations, but also in the original sense of indiscriminately mixed. And it is indeed mixed without method, formula or design.
*) Thomas, Tryon, Tryon’s Letters Upon Several Occasions (1700).
**) Gilbert West, Education (1751)
***) Burleson County Ledger and News Chronicle [Caldwell] (Oct. 4, 1912), p. 1.
†) Paradise Lost, book 3,
††) Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience (1873)
†††) Rudyard Kipling puts the word in the mouth of an Irish soldier stationed in India, who has been charged by his companions to go out on a hopeless search for peacock that they can sell for beer money. “I misdoubt anythin’ will come av permiscuous huntin’ afther pecockses in a disolit lan; and I know that I will lie down an’ die wid thirst.” “Great Krishna Mulvaney (1889)
§) The Cost to the U. S. Economy of Drug Abuse (1986)