Cleavage – Podictionary Word of the Day
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I often use Urbandictionary to research slang uses of otherwise staid and respectable words.
Urbandictionary in turn tries to induce website visitors to browse the site further by including along the bottom each page seemingly randomly selected images that other Urbandictionary users have uploaded to complement their homegrown definitions of words.
An image portraying cleavage caught my eye.
Now cleavage is a very interesting word even without pictures so I thought I’d tell you a little about it.
Long before cleavage referred to the space between a woman’s breasts there were two words that both evolved out of Old English into two words in Modern English. Both are cleave and strangely one means “stick together” while the other means “break apart.”
The “stick together” word is related to cling while the “break apart” word is related to cloven as in cloven hooves.
It wasn’t until 1946 that cleavage made an appearance as a word in English applying to the female form.
I don’t know for sure, but I think we can presume that it was the “break apart” meaning of cleave that lead to its use in reference to women’s chests.
That first citation for this use of cleavage appeared in Time Magazine.
Time was reporting on deliberations in the movie industry. The Motion Picture Association of America had set up its own censorship board mostly so that the government wouldn’t step in and do the censoring for them.
The word cleavage had been adopted within the Association to refer to the shadowed area indicating the space between an actress’s breasts.
The censors had to decide if too much shadow was too much.
In the case of the Time Magazine story the film in question was called The Wicked Lady and originated in Britain.
The censors decided it was just too racy for American eyes and the English film makers re-shot the offending scenes cleaving the film into two slightly different editions, one for each side of the pond.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.