"Talking to someone"

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From Julia Preseau:

I am feeling old today, having just realized that "talking to" is a widely used way to describe beginning stage of "dating relationships."

I noted it in two of these interactions on a little video experiment regarding "girls trying to pick up girls".

Here's the first example:

And another one at about 3:22 —

Julia adds:

So then I looked into it a bit, and found this:

“If I’m talking to someone, I’m exclusive with them. To me, talking is what dating should be — you go get ice cream or coffee and get to know someone.” – Adam D.

“Talking is getting to know someone with the intention of potentially dating them. That’s all there is to it.” – Holly B.

“I have a pretty good sense of whether I’m talking to someone as a friend or something more than that. ‘Talking’ in the romantic sense means that there are feelings involved and you’re getting to know each other to see where it goes. You talk consistently and probably have established ‘dibs’ on that person.” – Maddie L.

“Talking is when you could see it becoming a relationship but also think it could fall apart at any minute. You wouldn’t DARE ask, ‘what are we?’ because both people are trying to act casual.” – Dani G.

“To me, talking means that you both are hooking up with each other. In those situations, I’m normally not talking to anyone else, but I’m not exactly at the point in the relationship where I feel okay to ask if they’re talking to anyone else or not. It’s this weird, make-or-break limbo.” – Rachel K.

And so I guess I have been really out of it not to have heard the phrase used this way until now?

Urban Dictionary agrees:

when two people like each other a lot and have established that they like each other but they aren't technically "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" yet but they don't talk to other people

John and I have been talking for months, I wonder when he will ask me out.



  1. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    October 21, 2019 @ 9:12 pm

    Hasn't that use of talk to evolve from talk to as used by the police, as in (made-up example) "The police are talking to several friends of the victim but have announced no suspects"?

  2. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    October 21, 2019 @ 9:14 pm

    Correction: read "evolved" for "evolve."

  3. Doctor Science said,

    October 21, 2019 @ 11:42 pm

    I am reminded of something Miss Manners wrote, perhaps 15 years ago (or more). She was giving advice to young(ish) people looking for romantic partners, and talked about how In Her Day a proper young lady might "date" several young gentlemen at the same time, going to dances or plays or dinners with them.

    Her youthful correspondents were *deeply* shocked by this suggestion, which took Miss Manners aback. Reading about the exchange, I realized that there was a communications failure: to the young people, to "date" someone meant "to engage in a sexual relationship, presumptively exclusive". To Miss Manners, it meant "to spend time with someone in a way that might, in the future, lead to a sexual relationship, but is neither exclusive nor (explicitly) sexual now."

    My point is, there have been multiple waves of euphemization [? not sure what it's called, if it has a name], where a term that means "testing the romantic waters without being exclusive or fully sexual yet" drifts to mean "actually, they're f*cking" ("dating". "seeing", "going out with", "hooking up", etc.)–but there's still a need for a word for "testing the romantic waters", so new verbs have to be recruited. Right now, it's "talking" — but history predicts that in 30 years or so "talking" will be yet another euphemism for "actually, they're f*cking", and the cycle will have to begin again.

  4. eub said,

    October 21, 2019 @ 11:44 pm

    I can roll with this usage, but "they don't talk to other people" still throws me hard back to the other usage, that they don't make mouth sounds to other people.

    (Several informants agree that "talking" is exclusive, but at the same time you never explicitly confirm with your talk-partner? That sounds like a recipe for great social skills or high drama or both.)

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 12:02 am

    The phrase "talking to" was something I hadn't heard before either, but then I haven't been in the dating pool for 25+ years. Additionally, after watching the entire video, I also wondered to what extent the meaning of "Can I take you out sometime?" has changed since I was that age. Does the phrase no longer imply romantic intent? Or are today's young women THAT much more open-minded than a few decades ago? Or is the video only showing the favorably-inclined 3% of the people she tried to pick up (i.e. those who happened to be oriented in that direction anyway)?

  6. Phillip Helbig said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 1:46 am

    Showing my age and/or lack of need for additional sexual partners here, perhaps, but I have never heard this.

    With regard to euphemisms, I find "dating" a very bad one. Even worse is referring to an actual, living person as "my date".

  7. James said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 3:05 am

    New to me too. Wondering about the geographical spread – is it mainly North American? Or wider than that?

  8. /df said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 6:03 am

    Rumour has it that young people spend a lot of time "talking" to each other on their phones via some over-the-top messaging app or — retro! — by SMS. Is this how "exclusive" talking starts out? It's not clear from Julia's quotes whether the talkers are face-to-face, but the Urban Dictionary example gives the impression of a text chat.

    I haven't noticed this usage in the UK but obviously it's just a matter of time, since no-one bothers to carry a visiting card these days.

  9. Rube said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 6:50 am

    Had never heard of this either, but ran the post by my 18-year-old, who responded, "Yeah, that's pretty accurate."

    I knew I was old, but I wish I wasn't reminded of it quite so often.

  10. George Lane said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 8:38 am

    I remember hearing this for the first time in 2000 (metro Atlanta area), by a woman in her mid-20's. The phrasing was something like, "I told them we're not dating, but we're _talking_."

  11. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 9:16 am

    This strikes me as somehow similar to discussions of geopolitical entities as being "in talks". It sounds like it's a phase of negotiations before something is formally arranged. In this case, since the formal arrangement that may or may not be arrived at is one that is usually taken to be exclusive, even the talks are likely to be exclusive. While free trade agreements and peace deals usually aren't exclusive, so nations can be "talking to" multiple nations in this way.

  12. matt regan said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 9:17 am

    Harking back to "criminal conversation" perhaps?

  13. Paul Turpin said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 10:29 am

    Doctor Science's observations above remind me of "making love" in the 18/19c novel. Meaning I suppose wooing and courting.

  14. Doctor Science said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 10:55 am

    Paul Turpin:

    You remind me how shocked I was as a young 'un the first time I encountered "making love" in a pre-20th C novel, took me a bit to realize they didn't mean "having sex".

    Do other languages & cultures have similar cycles of "romantic euphemization" or whatever it should be called? It would be difficult to track in corpora, because by definition it's about shifts in colloquial usage by the young.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 11:10 am

    The older meaning of "intercourse," before the word got skunked by the originally-euphemistic sexual sense tending to drive away the others, often involved trade or business dealings, but other times more or less meant "talking to, esp. on a regular basis over time" as in the rather verbose title of a book by Francis Lieber (published in 1835): "Reminiscences of an Intercourse with Mr. Niebuhr, the Historian, During a Residence with Him In Rome, in the Years 1822 and 1823."

    That book as it happens also introduces a discussion of loanwords with the fine sentence (using an arguably broader sense of the noun): "The intercourse between nations often introduces words where we should not expect them."

  16. Gav said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 12:01 pm

    Is there a risk that giving someone "a good talking to" [=rebuke] might now be misunderstood?

  17. KevinM said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 2:48 pm

    And why not? Doesn't it seem more accurate and mature than saying you're "seeing" someone?

  18. Paul Turpin said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 2:48 pm

    One meaning of 'conversation' was sexual intercourse, and criminal conversation, (abbrev. to crim. con.) meant adultery. OED.

  19. AntC said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 4:36 pm

    So what's the stage _before_ 'talking' to be called? We're talking about talking? (As in "talks about talks".) If this relates to messaging apps, then what's the equivalent (in old money) of exchanging snapchat handles? Is that like the first kiss or holding hands?

    This continual euphemisation needs a continual supply of fresh words at the 'input' end.

  20. Alyssa said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 5:00 pm

    I wasn't aware of this euphemism before, but it makes a lot of sense – thanks to technology the early stages of dating these days involve a lot more talking than anything else. When you aren't integrated into each others lives yet (the way a boyfriend/girlfriend would be), you end up spending a lot of time exchanging messages back and forth digitally with only occasional in-person meetings.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 6:40 pm

    "Making love", meaning flirting, was current enough in the 20th century that it is prominently featured in the lyrics to a song ("Hernando's Hideaway") in the musical The Pajama Game, from 1954:

    At the golden finger bowl or anyplace you go
    You'll meet your uncle Max and everyone you know
    But if you are sitting close and making love to me
    you may take my heart, you may take my soul, but not my key!

    When my high school decided to put on The Pajama Game, this was an audition song, and some of the girls were quite uncomfortable with it.

    A replacement has been written for the offending couplet.

  22. Michael Watts said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 6:46 pm

    On the other hand, Simon and Garfunkel released this song in 1970:

    Makin' love in the afternoon with Cecilia
    up in my bedroom (makin' love)
    I got up to wash my face
    when I come back to bed, someone's takin' my place

  23. Michael Watts said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 8:03 pm

    I'm not sure I agree with the idea that this is coming from a euphemism treadmill, where people try to politely refer to a sexual relationship using a term for a non-sexual relationship.

    It seems just as plausible that what's happening is that sexual behavior keeps getting pushed upstream into earlier relationship stages, necessitating an even earlier pre-sexual stage. If you can only have sex inside a marriage, then dating couples aren't having sex. If dating couples start having sex within what is otherwise the same relationship, marriage is still around and dating couples still aren't married.

  24. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 10:07 pm

    I'm reminded of the distinction between "viewing" and "seeing" in Asimov's The Naked Sun, where "viewing" means holographic telepresence, and "seeing" means actual physical interaction, with all the sexual implications that KevinM objects to.

  25. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 10:22 pm

    Green's Dictionary of Slang has a good entry for this.

    talk, v.
    2. (US black/campus, also talk to/with) to have a relationship with someone, to date.
    1953 [US] Randolph & Wilson Down in the Holler 108: It is quite correct to remark that a young man is talkin’ or settin’ up or sparkin’ or courtin’, since all these terms may imply an intention to marry.
    1989 [US] Eble Campus Sl. Mar. 9: talk – date ‘Are ya’ll talking?’.
    1989 [US] P. Munro Sl. U. 33: be talking with to be going with, to be dating steadily.
    1990 [US] Eble Campus Sl. Apr. 8: talk to – date: ‘I’m talking to the guy in the blue shirt.’.
    1997 [US] Eble Campus Sl. Fall 8: talk – to converse with someone; to date someone; to have sex. ‘You still date James?’ ‘Yeah, we still talk.’.
    2014 [US] C. Eble (ed.) UNC-CH Campus Sl. Spring 2014 Fall 7: TALK — be in the early stages of a romantic relationship; date casually: ‘Mike and Susan have been talking since they met at my birthday party’.

    (The "Eble" references are to Connie Eble's invaluable lists of campus slang compiled by her students at UNC-Chapel Hill.)

  26. Michael Watts said,

    October 23, 2019 @ 2:40 am

    Eble 1997 reminds me of the definition of sass in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — "know; be aware of; meet; have sex with".

    If that gloss is anything to go by, it looks like sexual connotations have been removed in the modern usage.

  27. Peter Grubtal said,

    October 23, 2019 @ 3:05 am

    Thanks for the reminders above about earlier usages.
    There's also the biblical (Kings James at least)
    he "… knew her…".

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    October 23, 2019 @ 4:15 am

    Michael W — In "But if you are sitting close and making love to me, you may take my heart, you may take my soul, but not my key! " how is "key" to be interpreted ? Is "key" itself a euphemism, and if so, for what ? For virginity ?

  29. Michael Watts said,

    October 23, 2019 @ 9:40 am

    The key is literal; the character has a physical key to the factory that is the setting of the show; the plot involves someone taking the character out on a date to try and butter her up to the point that she will let him borrow the key.

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    October 23, 2019 @ 11:38 am

    Understood. Thank you Michael — TPG was rather before my time !

  31. Christian Weisgerber said,

    October 23, 2019 @ 3:48 pm

    There is a 1960 movie Let's Make Love starring Marilyn Monroe. I have the sneaking suspicion that the meaning of the expression was shifting at the time, but you could still point to the older meaning for plausible deniability, and the people most likely to get incensed wouldn't have picked up on the new sense yet.

  32. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 24, 2019 @ 9:59 am

    Wasn't aware of this usage, nor had I realized that "dating" necessarily implied having sex to some speakers.

    (Would those youngsters be baffled by things like "I don't think you should have sex on a first date", or is "date" itself still capable of being non-sexual to them?)

  33. Marc Sacks said,

    October 24, 2019 @ 10:53 am

    A while back (quite a while, probably), there was an ad that began, "If you want a four-letter word for intercourse, try 'talk.'" The next sentence ended with "try 'read'" (it was an ad for a book store; I don't remember what read was a synonym for). Anyone out there remember this? It would have been a Boston-area ad.

  34. Bloix said,

    October 25, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    I put this comment on the wrong thread, apologies to those who were distracted by it – it belongs here:

    "Make love" for flirt, woo is at least a few hundred years old.

    From Love for Love, by Congreve (1695):

    Tattle: I must make love to you, pretty miss, will you let me make love to you?
    Miss Prue: Yes … You must tell me how.
    Tatt: You must let me speak, miss; you must not speak first. I must ask you questions, and you must answer.
    Miss P: What, is it like a catechism? – come then, ask me.
    Tatt: D'ye think you can love me?
    Miss P: Yes.
    Tatt: Pooh, plague, you must not say yes already. I shan't care a farthing for you then, in a twinkling.

  35. Andrew Usher said,

    October 25, 2019 @ 7:10 pm

    Andreas Johansson:

    No, 'going on a date' and 'dating' are different things; the meaning of the first has not changed, and whether to 'have sex on the first date' is as meaningful as it ever was.

    (Just trying to clear one point for a presumable non-native speaker.)

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  36. Allan from Iowa said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 8:23 pm

    When we get old enough, we're all non-native speakers of the language of the young.

  37. Misha Schutt said,

    October 28, 2019 @ 10:53 am

    My first exposure to “date” for sex was about thirty years ago, when I (a gay man) was in the throes of being stood up by a man I was supposed to meet in an unfamiliar part of town. I stopped at a pay phone by a greasy spoon, and a rather unappetizing woman came up and said, “Do you date?” I had no idea what she meant and said “Pardon?” She then repeated the question, giving a flick of a finger to my crotch as she enunciated the word “date.”

  38. Andrew Usher said,

    October 28, 2019 @ 10:25 pm

    Eh – that woman was almost certainly a prostitute! And within that 'business', dating _is_ used as a general euphemism for the activity that takes place between the prostitute and client (as they are in need of such euphemisms). I would take that comment as an inquiry as to whether I were in the market for such services.

    I don't think it likely to spread to the general population that way, though. The use of "they're dating" to mean "they're in a [presumably] sexual relationship" is a pretty obvious step, and one distinct from the prostitute's use.

  39. Misha Schutt said,

    October 29, 2019 @ 1:09 am

    Eh – I left that unsaid. I didn’t realize she was a hooker until she flicked my dick. That was when I ran the other way. I just thought it was an interesting story. As a then-middle-aged gay man, i suppose I was unaware of a lot of heterosexual sex slang (e.g. booting), let alone female prostitutes’ vocabulary.

  40. Sarah W said,

    October 29, 2019 @ 11:54 am

    Hmm. I think I remember this expression as common in my neck of the woods in Texas in the early 2000s and maybe slightly earlier. It was definitely a thing by the mid '00s.

    "Talking to someone" meant interaction and interest with the intention to be exclusive by the person who's doing the "talking", though there was still even some uncertainty in the other person's intention. The "talking" phase didn't influence the friend group.

    "Dating" was when both were intending to be exclusive, and the relationship began to impact friend group dynamics.

    "Hooking up" was sexual/making out, but not with the intention to be exclusive. Hookups could even be serial with the same person, if I recall.

  41. Geoff Nunberg said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 7:14 pm

    My guess is that the progressive plays a crucial role here — cf the difference between "Is she seeing someone?" and "She should see someone." Unlikely that one can say "I talked to her for a while."

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