Hoping We Avoid “the Seven-Year Itch”

What is the meaning of the common expression “the seven-year itch?” Generally speaking, this refers to the notion that things go stale after seven years, particularly in relationships. However, the expression can be used metaphorically to describe other various situations.

Where did this expression come from?  Partially from reality.  There does seem to be a cycle of dissatisfaction in a romantic relationship or in other situations, such as a job.   After about seven years, things go stale.  We crave a little variety, and too much of the same thing is, well…too much.

A little etymology

As to when…it doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces every word/phrase the researchers could find, with documentation of the change n form and meaning down through the centuries.

But when I checked out the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (last publication date 2001), there it was, at the top of p. 1754.

Before it meant ‘relationship dissatisfaction,’ it was a physical condition ready to be assigned derived meanings. And the above timing would gibe with Wikipedia’s account:

The phrase [with derived meaning – AMP] was used in the title of the play The Seven Year Itch by George Axelrod, and gained popularity following the 1955 film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell. In his 1913 novel, The Eighth Year, Philip Gibbs attributes the concept to the British judge Sir Francis Jeune.

So per the OED, the phrase was in use as early as 1400 to denote a skin disease, scabies — Random House’s first definition – an ailment which may have hung around a long time, hence the “seven-year.”  Sir Francis is the first attributable source of the derived meaning ‘marital dissatisfaction’ but it may have been around before he committed it to paper.

Graphic illustrating what the seven year itch is. The seven year itch is an expression that refers to the notion that things go stale after seven years, particularly in relationships

Here are a couple of examples from Ludwig that show further-derived meanings you may encounter, i.e., ‘delayed gratification’:

The Guardian – 

Southampton have scratched their seven-year itch.

The New York Times –

It’s like the seven-year itch of politics


Usage notes

This is one of those semi-slang words that’s familiar to any native speaker of English and probably to many second-language speakers as well.  I recommend confining it to your “passive vocabulary”: understand it when it’s said or read, but use it only when it’s dead-on appropriate.

Further reading: here are some other great expressions that you can integrate into your writing:

Dog Whistle

Scot Free

Close, But No Cigar

Go To Hell In A Handbasket

Posted by Avatar photo
By Alan Perlman PhD

Alan M. Perlman has Ph.D. in linguistics and 20+ years' experience as a business ghostwriter, a professional speech writer, and a book manuscript editor. Dr. Perlman holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from Brown University, as well as a master's degree and PhD in linguistics from the University of Chicago.

During his many years of corporate speechwriting and ghostwriting, Dr. Perlman has written almost every kind of corporate communication – executive speeches, annual reports, employee communications, magazine articles, video scripts, and much more. As a freelance professional speech writer, ghostwriter, and editor of fiction as well as nonfiction works, he has helped clients express themselves precisely and effectively.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *