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I was thinking about the way "innocent" is often used (in both casual and moderately formal contexts) to mean "sexually inexperienced/oblivious", and came to the conclusion that using the phrase in such a way would imply that persons who have some degree of sexual experience are guilty of some trespass. Because this is an idea which does not align with my beliefs, I am trying to remove this phrase from my personal vocabulary.

Before I do so, I was wondering about the origin of the usage of the word "innocent" in this manner. Can anyone shed some light on the history of this usage? Or, if that is a question that is too broad to answer here, what sort of resources would I look into if I wanted to learn more about the history of a word's usage in a particular manner?

  • I imagine (though not sure enough to put as an answer) that it comes from the idea of "Age of Innocence" meaning: "A time when a person or society exists in a state of childlike simplicity or naivety." I think a more appropriate "antonym" for 'innocent" in this sense would be "not so innocent" as opposed to "guilty," but I get what you're saying and why you're trying to avoid using it. – Papa Poule Dec 8 '14 at 17:44
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    Yes, as is, this is very broad. Also, I don't think it is restricted to English. The history is probably Old Testament, knowledge of good and evil is a lack of innocence. Try christianity.SE who will know better about the history of the development of these concepts. – Mitch Dec 8 '14 at 18:37
  • Your question seems to presuppose that "innocence" is the opposite of "guilt". While that's true in a courtroom setting, the answers demonstrate that this is not true in general. – Lee Mosher Jul 10 '16 at 20:56
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Whatever the origin be, it is a sense that has been around for a very long time. The OED has its earliest reference under meaning 3a as the year 1382. There is no actual reference to sex, but for anyone currently under the age of 50, remember that sex wasn't invented until the 1960s.

Meaning Having or showing the simplicity, ignorance, artlessness, or unsuspecting nature of a child or one ignorant of the world; devoid of cunning or artifice; simple, guileless, unsuspecting; hence, artless, naive, ingenuous.

Examples

▸a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(1)) (1850) Prov. xxii. 3 The innocent passede and is tormentid with harm.

c1386 Chaucer Clerk's Tale 218 Grisilde of this, god woot, ful Innocent That for hire shapen was al this array.

1390 J. Gower Confessio Amantis III. 169 Ful ofte Deceived ben with wordes softe The kinges, that ben innocent.

c1440 Generydes 951 Of all this werk the kyng was innocent And of ther falsed no thing perceyuyd.

1535 Bible (Coverdale) Rest of Esther xvi. A, Which also with false and disceatfull wordes..disceaue and betraye the innocent goodnes of prynces.

1711 R. Steele Spectator No. 118. ⁋3 For all she looks so innocent as it were, take my Word for it she is no Fool.

1859 C. Reade Love me Little xiv, Shall I tell you your real character?..You are an innocent fox!

1875 A. W. Ward Hist. Eng. Dramatic Lit. I. 7 Chaucer indeed made a very innocent use of the words tragedy and comedy when he applied them simply to poems ending happily or unhappily.

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Abraham Cowley (who died in 1667) opens his "A Paraphrase on an Ode in Horace's third Book, beginning thus, Inclusam Danaen turris ahennea" begins as follows:

A Tow'r of Brass, on would have said,

And Locks, and Bolts, and Iron Bars,

And Guards as strict as in the Heat of Wars,

Might have preserv'd one innocent Maiden-head.

The jealous Father thought he well might spare

All further jealous Care,

And as he walk'd, t'himself alone he smil'd,

To think how Venus Arts he had beguil'd;

And when he slept, his Rest was deep,

But Venus laugh'd to see and hear him sleep.

Depending on how true Cowley's paraphrase is to Horace's original, these lines suggest that the association of innocence with sexual inexperience or naïveté—or more simply, virginity—may antedate English by centuries at least (Horace died in 8 BCE).

An earlier example in English appears in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (1599):

Friar. Hear me a little;

For I have only been silent so long,

And given way unto this course of fortune,

By noting of the lady : I have mark'd

A thousand blushing apparitions start

Into her face ; a thousand innocent shames

In angel whiteness bear away those blushes ;

And in her eye there hath appear'd a fire,

To burn the errors that these princes hold

Against her maiden truth :

My impression is that general notions of the innocence of children and the asexuality of children have been connected in the human mind from time immemorial. There may even be some similar connection of childlike innocence and sexual innocence at work in the Biblical account of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Whether sexual intercourse existed before human knowledge of good and evil is not mentioned in that text, although the Bible is quite clear that the pain of childbirth was one outcome of that unfortunate event.

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From etymonline.com

innocent (adj.) mid-14c., "doing no evil, free from sin or guilt," from Old French inocent "harmless; not guilty; pure" (11c.), from Latin innocentem (nominative innocens) "not guilty, harmless, blameless," from in- "not" (see in- (1)) + nocentem (nominative nocens), present participle of nocere "to harm" (see noxious). Meaning "free from guilt of a specific crime or charge" is from late 14c. The earliest use was as a noun, "person who is innocent of sin or evil" (c.1200). The Holy Innocents (early 14c.) were the young children slain by Herod sfter the birth of Jesus (Matt. ii:16).

I'd say it's safe to assume that going from "free from sin" to "never had sex" is a direct step.

If you fear it might be too Christian, think about it like this: According to Catholicism everyone have the "original sin" on their backs. So no one is truly innocent. So even the sexually inexperienced are not innocent. So the meaning of the word innocent is irrelevant in those contexts anyway.

If the word is irrelevant in those contexts, it is safe to use in other contexts.

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The etymology of the word denotes an element of harm. The primary usage of the word implies this harm is a crime or sin, but if we look at the extended usage, the "harm" is to our original childish nature. In this context, each bit of knowledge and experience we gain eliminates some of our innocence.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the original sin was the acquisition of knowledge. The implication here is that ignorance is synonymous with innocence.

...

4.a. Not experienced or worldly; naive. b. Betraying or suggesting no deception or guile; artless.

5. a. Not exposed to or familiar with something specified; ignorant: American tourists wholly innocent of French. b. Unaware: She remained innocent of the complications she had caused.

  1. Lacking, deprived, or devoid of something: a novel innocent of literary merit.

innocent. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved July 10 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/innocent

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