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Where Does the Term "The Birds and The Bees" Come From?

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Spring is in the air, and if a classic euphemism is to be believed, this means birds and bees have begun their time-honored practice of non-stop coitus.

Or something like that.

The phrase "the birds and the bees" is hazy by design—it's used to tell children about the mechanics of human sex without actually mentioning sex or humans. It's prudish poetry that has somehow endured throughout the years, but its origins—like its definition—aren't entirely clear.

Kathleen Kelleher writes in the Los Angeles Times that the term is thought to have two possible origins. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is credited with referring to the two species in the context of love in his 1825 collection "Work Without Hope":

All nature seems at work . . . The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing . . . and I the while, the sole unbusy thing, not honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Unfortunately for Coleridge, this fleeting passage had a lasting legacy, and his jealousy at local birds and bees for getting more action than him has been etched into eternity.

USC professor Ed Finegan found an earlier use of the phrase in the diary of John Evelyn, published in 1644 (but written a century prior):

That stupendous canopy of Corinthian brasse; it consists of 4 wreath'd columns--incircl'd with vines, on which hang little putti [cherubs], birds and bees.

Finegan theorizes that Romantic era poets were inspired by this passage's placement of "birds and bees" so close to Cherubs, which represent the sexuality of humans.

The earliest use of the term I found in the New York Times archives that could conceivably be in the modern context of sex is from a Civil War correspondence from Washington DC, published a little over a week after the start of the conflict, in 1861:

It is a warm, sunny day, this 20th day of April. The air is redolent of bursting buds, and the Capital Park is jubilant with the gushing songs of the birds and the humming of the honey-bees. The Northern air that has "aggressed" upon us for a week past has been driven back by the rebellious South wind, that comes, fresh from the fair faces it has carressed, and the waving tresses through which it has wantoned, to enchant the soul with its balmy breath, and entrance the mind with its dreamy sweetness.

The author certainly doesn't shy from wordplay ("aggressed," sick burn), which leads me to believe that euphemistic speaking is a possibility.

On the bright side, the convoluted origins of "the birds and the bees" may inspire you to skip the phrase altogether next time you're asked, "Where do babies come from?"—assuming you're asked before Google is.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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