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For those of us not familiar, the verb to know once had an archaic sexual sense, often found in the Old Testament, and as illustrated in the following story found in Genesis 19:

4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.

5 And they called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them."

6 Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him,

7 and said, "I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly."

8 "Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof."

This story is used Biblically to illustrate why Sodom was truly a wicked city and deserved to be destroyed: Despite Lot's offering his daughters to the evil men of Sodom to fulfill their rape fantasies, they opt instead for 1) homosexual relations, 2) to assault Lot's favored guests and 3) to assault God-sent angels (albeit, in disguise.)

When I look things up on the Online Etymology Dictionary, it says,

The Anglo-Saxons used two distinct words for this, witan (see wit) and cnawan. Meaning "to have sexual intercourse with" is attested from c.1200, from the O.T.

OK, cool. So it seems to be telling us that those first English translators of the Hebrew Old Testament were the ones who first adopted this new meaning of to know.

But my question is: Why did they choose know in the first place? What made this seem like a good word to translate to? Did it have a closely related sense in Old English that made it easy to slightly shift its meaning? ("To intimately know", perhaps?) Or was it that they were so puritanical about writing vulgar thoughts in a Holy Book that they consciously chose know as a euphemism so as not to distract readers from their communion with God's Word? Does anybody know anything? I'd appreciate any thoughts.

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I wonder, is there a difference in meaning between 'to lay with' and 'to know' in this context? (perhaps I should get my own question...) –  z7sg Ѫ Apr 8 '11 at 17:27
    
Wikipedia claims its a euphemism however it doesn't seem to have a source backing it up en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnal_knowledge –  Robb Apr 8 '11 at 17:32
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The Bible isn't terribly shy about using terms like "rape" or telling stories about dead people being cut up and shipped across the nation. I don't think "sex" would be much a taboo. –  MrHen Apr 8 '11 at 17:54
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Sorry, I don't know –  Simon Whitaker Apr 8 '11 at 19:20
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I can confirm the use of to know in other versions, Italian and Latin (both of them are not translations of the English version, obviously). –  Sklivvz Apr 8 '11 at 23:04
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2 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

The word used in the situations you described is (transliterated) yada, which simply means "to know" and is often translated (in different circumstances) find, understand, comprehend and acknowledge.

Considering some of the situations presented in the Old Testament (drunken incest of Lot and his daughters, rape of Dinah, rather suggestive imagery in Song of Solomon, etc), I doubt euphemisms would even be considered necessary; however, Strong's concordance suggests it is used euphemistically (in addition to other senses) in the Hebrew.

I imagine those who translated earlier (KJV) would not have seen reason to translate yada any differently when it referred to sex (they rarely translated words differently solely for the sake of clarity), whereas newer translations (NASB), more for the sake of clarity than anything, use another euphemism (ie. had relations with). I doubt any translators would find a reason to change a euphemism in the original language into something more graphic.

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"Yeah. I met this lawyer, we went out to dinner, I had the lobster bisque, we went back to my place, yada yada yada, I never heard from him again." "But you yada yada'd over the best part." "No, I mentioned the bisque." –  Sam Apr 8 '11 at 17:42
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For those needing help with Sam's reference: youtube.com/watch?v=av64gOA9nXM –  JYelton Apr 9 '11 at 0:19
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Like many words in English, the verb לדעת in Hebrew has several meanings. One meaning is to have knowledge of. Another meaning is to have sexual relations with. One could argue that the latter is an euphemism for the former, but as a native speaker it does not feel like an euphemism. Hebrew has much fewer words than English, and words are often recycled for differing purposes in differing contexts.

When the Original Testament was translated to English, many decisions had to be made regarding the use of homonyms. A famous mistake was made regarding the קרניים on Moses' head. In Hebrew it is obvious that the word is referring to rays, however in English the word "horns" was used. Would you argue that a horn is a euphemism for ray, or vice versa? I wouldn't. In the same sense "to know" is not used in a sexual sense, but rather the Hebrew word for "to know" is a homonym for "to copulate".

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In "latter is an [sic] euphemism for the former", swap latter and former. –  jwpat7 Jan 29 '12 at 18:03
    
@jwpat7: No, it is written quite the way that I intended it. The more common use of the word לדעת is "to have knowledge of". –  dotancohen Jan 30 '12 at 18:54
    
A euphemism is "a word or phrase to replace another with one that is considered less offensive or less vulgar than the word or phrase it replaces". It is silly to suggest, as you do, that someone could argue that "have sexual relations with" is a euphemism for "have knowledge of". –  jwpat7 Jan 31 '12 at 5:11
    
Similarly in HHGTTG "sass" = Meet, be aware of, have sex with. –  mgb Jan 31 '12 at 5:32
    
Thank you jqpat7. I see that euphemism probably is not the right word then. Which word would you suggest? Thanks. –  dotancohen Feb 2 '12 at 18:32
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