It was the Bard of Stratford, William Shakespeare, who wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the course of true love never did run smooth. In the days when life expectancy was considerably shorter than it is now and when the perils of childbirth were mortal, a long marriage was a rarity. There was often little time for either party to get bored with each other. Now that childbirth is less perilous, the wandering eye of a partner is often the reason why marriages end in failure with a trip to the divorce courts.
This week’s phrase, seven-year itch, is now almost exclusively used to refer to the wandering eye of a married man, who is tempted by what seem to be greener pastures sometime after he got hitched. There seems to be something in the view that the moment of maximum danger is the seven year mark. Studies seem to suggest that couples experience a gradual decline in the quality of their marriage after around four years and by the seventh have either divorced or decided to divorce or have adapted to their partner’s ways.
Be that as it may, our phrase originally had nothing to do with the matrimonial state and the potential errant husband; rather it dealt with another form of irritation, a very infectious one at that – scabies. The source of this painful condition is a mite or, more likely, a number of mites which burrow into the skin and lay their eggs. The condition was highly infectious, spread by skin-to-skin contact or, on occasions, from exposure to infested items like bedding, clothing and furniture. So hard was the condition to get rid of that it was said that you were stuck with it for seven years.
Of course, this did not stop quacks from peddling panaceas offering a remedy. One such was Dr John Mason’s Indian Vegetable Panacea, which was advertised in the Ohio Statesman of 26th March 1839 (the first recorded instance) in which the elixir was described as being capable of being “taken with perfect safety, by all ages, for the cure of the following diseases….also, that corruption so commonly known to the western country as the scab or seven year itch.” So scabrous was life in certain parts of the States that a whole raft of variants cropped up, including prairie itch, Indiana itch, army itch, jail itch, swamp itch and winter itch to name just a few.
So how and when did it gain its modern usage?
The phrase began to be used figuratively, by way of describing the itch caused by poisoned ivy, to describe an irritant or a continual nuisance. But its direct reference to matrimonial infidelity is attributable to George Axelrod who used it as the title for his comedy in 1952 and Billy Wilder’s film in 1955 starring Marilyn Monroe ensured that it had a world-wide audience.
Axelrod claimed that the phrase popped into his head courtesy of what would now be termed a sexist, deeply chauvinist comedian, Rod Brassfield. One of his favourite jokes (ahem) was “I know she’s over 21 because she had the seven-year itch four times.” In Axelrod’s play for which he was desperately trying to find a title, the hero had been married for ten years but so appropriate seemed the phrase to the play that he changed the length of the protagonist’s marriage to suit.
The rest is history, as they say.