Function: adjective

A 55 year old married man takes his best mate’s daughter, a pretty little 20 year old, to a stunning lookout to wine her, dine her and then propose an extramarital affair.

A female partner in a law firm invites an engaged junior staff member to her house after work under the auspices of discussing legal matters, but with the private intention of seducing him.

A young woman shares a dinner with her partner and a group of friends, nonchalantly stroking the thigh of her boyfriend’s best friend under the dining table.

Licentious behaviour.  Unfortunately it is all around us.  Fortunately this means that once we become acquainted with this funky word we may well find opportunities to start using it straight away 😉

At its base, licentious refers to a lack of restraint in the face of the law or morality.  While it can refer to all kinds of corruptions and transgressions, it is most often used with reference to sexual behaviours that flout moral boundaries.  Whether it means stepping outside of a monogamous relationship for sex or sleeping your way to the top, licentiousness is probably presumptuous, certainly morally ambiguous and always exhibiting a disregard for social norms.

Where does it come from?

Well, you might have heard the expression ‘having licence’ or the more famous ‘licence to kill’.  Licentious finds its origin in this notion of licence as permission, derived from the Latin ‘licentiosus’ and ‘licentia’ in 1535.  The basic idea is that a licentious individual claims licence to behave as they choose, disregarding social norms.  Have you ever told someone ‘you’ve got a cheek’ or ‘you’ve got some nerve’?  Well, it’s possible that they were engaging in licentious behaviour.

Beyond the dictionary definition each of us has our own beliefs about the meanings and connotations of words.  I would like to share my feelings about the word licentious – with the disclaimer that this is my opinion, and might not be shared by others!

For me licentiousness is a combination of sleaze and lasciviousness.  It conjures images of indulgence, hedonism and, oddly enough, red feathers, corsets and velvet couches.  Yup, for some reason it makes me think of cabaret and vaudeville, slender cigarettes in ivory holders held by gloved hands.  Must have something to do with the possibly irrational relationship in my mind between literature, Shakespeare, licentiousness and Moulin Rouge.

Sleazy and lascivious it might be, but the word licentious does not describe every brand of morally ambiguous promiscuity.  For example, licentious is too negative a word to describe the free loving hippie orgies, dandelions and sunflowers of the 60s, even if their behaviour was outside the social norms of the time.  And it’s not condemning enough a word for the abhorrent practice of child abuse, which is certainly a contravention, but one requiring a stronger word.  So licentious is somewhere in between these two, vaguely sleazy, unsettling and off.

I am in France at the moment, a country whose charming inhabitants boast a reputation for having rather fluid boundaries in terms of sexual morality.  The French are known in Australia for their perceived cultural acceptance of the passionate fling, the steamy affair, the little bit of action on the side.  I find myself wondering whether the notion of licentiousness exists in French, and whether it would carry as much weight as its English counterpart?

In any case, where I come from there is a word for this type of behaviour, and it is licentious.  These licentious (usually philandering) libertines deserve to have attributed to them this precise and evocative word.  So next time you hear about a married boss propositioning a work experience student at a Christmas party or a 38 year old mother of two seducing a 17 year old high school graduate from under his girlfriend, you know what to call them.

In peace and wordliness 🙂


One thought on “Licentious (lī-sěn’shəs)

  1. Can I just say that I love, LOVE, LOVE your blog?

    I don’t think I have ever been more turned on (except when flirting and seducing a woman) then after reading your word of the week Licentious. Oh GOD, I had NO IDEA how much of a turn on that was to read it. And not just that word, but all the rest of the words you’re profiling! Speaking as someone who writes for pleasure (and I do mean PLEASURE), I find having words that stimulate, fascinate, and enthrall to be a complete turn on.

    Keep it up! Forever a raving fan.

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