The following dialog is an excerpt from Terry Pratchett's Making Money:

“Isn’t the fornication wonderful?”

After quite a lengthy pause, Moist ventured, “Is it?”

“Don’t you think so? There’s more here than anywhere else in the city, I’m told.”

“Really?” said Moist, looking around nervously. “Er . . . do you have to come down here at some special time?”

“Well, during banking hours usually, but we let groups in by appointment.”

“You know,” said Moist, “I think this conversation has somehow got away from me . . .”

Bent waved vaguely at the ceiling.

“I refer to the wonderful vaulting,” he said. “The word derives from fornix, meaning ‘arch’.”

“Ah! Yes? Right!” said Moist. “You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if not many people knew that.”

I do not dispute the origin of the word which is confirmed by this definition:

Sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other.

Word History: The word fornication had a lowly beginning suitable to what has long been the low moral status of the act to which it refers. The Latin word fornix, from which fornicti, the ancestor of fornication, is derived, meant "a vault, an arch." The term also referred to a vaulted cellar or similar place where prostitutes plied their trade. This sense of fornix in Late Latin yielded the verb fornicr, "to commit fornication," from which is derived fornicti, "whoredom, fornication." Our word is first recorded in Middle English about 1303.

My question is whether the word fornication ever actually meant vaulting in English as opposed to Latin. The definition above states that 'our' word first appeared in 1303 but did it carry both meanings or only the modern one? For that matter, does it carry both meanings today? None of the dictionaries I checked has that usage.

  • 3
    I used to pole vault in high school. A lot. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 17:29
  • @RyeBread ah, but did you do so to better approach the fornication?
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 17:34
  • In this case it was vault, pole, then fornication... I love architecture. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 17:38
  • I suppose one had to expect a monumental pile of arch comments. Commented Feb 24 at 15:43

1 Answer 1


Yes, fornication once did mean arching or vaulting in English. The OED has it dating from 1703 in Richard Neve's The city and countrey purchaser, and builder's dictionary: or, The compleat builder's guide:

Fornication, In Architecture, is an Arching, or Vaulting.

The etymology shows it coming directly from Latin. The entry isn't marked as archaic or obsolete, but it is marked as an 'Architecture' term, so not really in common use.

However, the meaning of 'sexual intercourse between a[n unmarried] man and an unmarried woman' is much older in English, dating to before 1300 in Cursor Mundi: a Northumbrian poem of the 14th century:

Þis sin [lechery] has branches fele..fornicacion es an.

The OED also has a 1303 quotation from Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne:

‘Fornycacyoun’ [ys], whan two vnweddyde haue mysdoun.

This comes via Old French from late Latin.

  • 5
    Hah, I should know better than to try and out-sesquipedaliate Pratchett :). Thanks.
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 17:35
  • 3
    Well, he does sometimes just make up stuff too, though he is also knowledgable enough that he could well reply to your talk of out-sesquipedaliating him with something exactly eighteen inches long.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 0:22
  • Archery practice took place at the Butts. Is this now a duoble entendre? Commented Feb 24 at 15:46

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