The Washington Post broke the bombshell story with this headline: “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” The candidate’s remarks, as many have rightly noted, aren’t just lewd, for in the video Trump boasts about sexual assault. But it’s this word lewd that has been littering the headlines since – and a word whose origins are quite surprising.
Today, lewd means “offensive in a sexual way,” a sense which has come a far way from its roots. Lewd derives from the Old English lǽwede, when it meant “lay,” or a person who is not a member of the clergy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds lewd in a late 9th-century translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Clerics, unlike many historic laypersons, could read and write, which is why lewd went on to mean “uneducated” or “unlearned” in Middle English. The medieval mind associated this “ignorant” lewdness with “base,” “coarse,” and “vile” behavior, including “licentious” actions. (It had class associations as well.) These meanings emerge by the late 1300s, with Chaucer using lewd for “lascivious” in his Miller’s Prologue around 1386: “Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye.”
The deeper roots of lewd are unclear. Some, like Walter Skeat, think the Old English lǽwede is formed from the verb lǽwan, “to betray” or “weaken.” Is one lewd because their lack of education is betrayed, that is, exposed? Is one lewd because enfeeblement is a form of baseness? The sense development here is tricky.
Others, such as the OED, suppose the Old English lǽwede might have been borrowed from a late form of lāicus, a “lay” person, source of English’s own nonclerical lay as well as liturgy. Latin’s lāicus comes from Greek’s λᾱϊκός (laikos), referring to something “of the people” as opposed to the clergy. At root is λᾱός (laos), “the people,” which is featured in the name Nicholas: “victory-people,” which joins laos to nike (νίκη), the word for and goddess of “victory” as well as source of the athletic brand name.
Since the video’s release, politicians, pundits, and public figures have been decrying Trump’s comments. But, ironically enough for the etymology of lewd, many in the evangelical community continue to defend the Republican candidate – including some “un-lewd” clergy themselves.