The heart of an affair

affair

“An affair wants to spill, to share its glory with the world. No act is so private it does not seek applause.” — John Updike

It’s a scandalous affair that’s taking place at the Old Bailey right now: the high-profile phone-hacking trial of disgraced News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. And in a recent twist to the red-topped drama (red-topped not just because of the tabloid media giving it round-the-clock coverage but also with its flame-haired leading lady), there’s now another sort of affair that has come to light at the heart of this real-life soap opera: an extra-marital one that was apparently conducted between the defendants during the crucial period under investigation. But is “extra-marital affair” actually a tautology? Isn’t an affair — by definition — a romance between two people at least one of whom is married to another? What makes an affair an affair?

A quick anecdotal survey among my friends suggests that different people have very different notions of what constitutes an affair. Some say it has to be extra-marital. But what if it’s an open marriage, or if the spouses are separated or otherwise feeling nonplussed about their partner’s roaming behavior? Does the cheating philanderer deserve to have his nth lousy blatant fling named so eloquently? Others say it has to be illicit or secret — but not necessarily because of marital guilt. Lovers hiding their assignations because of an inordinately large or indecent age-gap might be accused of conducting an affair, even if both are single. Must a dalliance be fleeting or doomed to be called an affair? The man long estranged from his wife with a permanent live-in lover and children is surely not to be accused of having one. Are affairs sexual by definition and only emotional when they’re qualified as a “love affair”? It does seem that the word’s defining criteria are questionable and more than a few: does a relationship need to be intense and passionate, short-lived or temporary, sexual rather than emotional, or simply adulterous, in order to qualify for this poetic label?

The OED goes for the marriage clause, as well as the element of transience, defining an affair as “a (usually temporary) sexual relationship outside marriage; a love affair”. Cambridge Dictionaries prefer to focus on its illicit nature, describing it as “a sexual relationship, usually a secret one”. Longman likes to have both in place, ie. “a secret sexual relationship between two people, when at least one of them is married to someone else”. Merriam-Webster (online) requires only concealment: “a secret sexual relationship between two people”, whereas Wiktionary focuses on the defying of vows: “an adulterous relationship (from affaire de cœur)”, as does American Heritage: “a sexual relationship between two people who are not married to each other”. All seem to agree that an affair is of the body, and not necessarily of the heart, mind or soul.

A look at the word’s etymology and early usage might help shed a little light on the heart of its meaning. As the Online Etymology Dictionary explains: “c.1300, “what one has to do,” from Anglo-French afere, Old French afaire (12c., Modern French affaire) “business, event; rank, estate,” from the infinitive phrase à faire “to do,” from Latin ad “to”+ facere “to do, make”. A Northern word originally, brought into general use and given a French spelling by Caxton (15c.). General sense of “vague proceedings” (in romance, war, etc.) first attested 1702. Meaning “an affair of the heart; a passionate episode” is from French affaire de coeur (itself attested in English from 1809); to have an affair with someone in this sense is by 1726, earlier have an affair of love: ‘Tis manifeſtly contrary to the Law of Nature, that one Woman ſhould cohabit or have an Affair of Love with more than one Man at the ſame time. [“Pufendorf’s Law of Nature and Nations,” transl. J. Spavan, London, 1716].”

So, in the early 18th century, having relations with more than one person at the same time seemed to constitute having affairs, and they were passionate affairs of the heart — at least when described, perhaps modestly, in print…

Reporting earlier this week on the tawdry Brooks-Coulson entanglement, the New York Times quoted Joan Bakewell, the former BBC presenter who famously had an affair with Harold Pinter in the swinging 60s, as she wondered how such illicit relationships can still be managed in our era of constant connectivity. She asked “how affairs work when you’re constantly pestered with cell calls and emails with “spouses and partners asking: ‘Where are you?” You know, it’s impossible. I don’t know how they manage it.'”

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