molest n.

From Jon Lighter to ADS-L yesterday:

An attorney on Fox News oberves that the tot mom’s defense is that she’d been victimized by repeated “sexual molest.”

A new nouning? Well, probably not.

It turns out that there’s an old, very old, noun molest, from an Anglo-French and Middle French noun. OED3 (Sept. 2002):

Now rare. Trouble, hardship; molestation, injury.

with cites from

c1390    in C. Innes Reg. Honoris de Morton (1853) I. App. xl,   Thou..tuk away twenty-one and to beforsaid il molest wrang and greif.

through c1400, c1460, 1490, 1616, and 1647. Then a big gap until:

1865    W. J. Linton Claribel 53   Alfred..Sat down to keep the feast of Epiphany Within his walls, secure from all molest.

And a much bigger gap until:

1994    New Paper (Singapore) 1 Oct. 32/2   The sad thing about molest is that though it is physical, the harm is always mental and emotional anguish.

This looks like “new” molest, as in Lighter’s quote above. New molest seems to be a clipping of molestation, and it occurs almost entirely in legal, therapeutic, and social-service contexts, as here:

This course will address the unique needs of law enforcement investigators who are responsible for investigating child sexual molest cases. (link)


Allegations of in-home molest/abuse seem to cause the most severe conflict within the system. There are many reasons for this. Child molest is a societal taboo. It causes extreme emotional upheavals in the family, internally, and for family members in relation to society at large. Allegations of molest provoke bias in everyone within the system. Molest can rarely be proven. Molest leaves no physical evidence. (link)

Havertown (Delaware County), Pennsylvania — Long-time district judge charged with sexual molest of 12-year-old stepdaughter (link)

These all have molest for the mass noun molestation. But it’s also available for the count noun, and the two uses sometimes occur together in the same text, as here:

Protecting Your Child from Molest: … What is child molest? … What if your child tells you about a molest? … telling about molest usually causes a significant amount of trouble for a child … It is more likely that your child will not tell you about a molest. (link)

If the court believes a molest occurred and the family member could have been responsible a “true finding” is made and wardship declared. If a father denies molest and a true finding is made, he suffers the ultimate Catch 22 (link)

[Note: Dan Goncharoff on ADS-L finds Google Book references for sexual molest dated back to 1967 (though they’re snippets and the dating is unsure). Still, that’s a hundred years after the previous OED citation.

My point was that the 20th-century uses aren’t continuations of the older usage, but fresh creations by clipping (and in restricted contexts).]


4 Responses to “molest n.”

  1. Chris Says:

    As my husband is Singaporean, and I’ve been going there for 16 years on-and-off, I’m familiar with the word “molest” used as a noun. It’s always the way that what we would call “sexual assault” is reported in the newspapers there. I thought that it was a bit of Singlish coming through into mainstream Singaporean English usage. I believe the Malaysians use it in English as well.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      It appears that this use of “molest” is indeed widespread in Singaporean English. But it’s in much wider use than that, in U.S. legal and therapeutic writing, in particular.

  2. Chris Says:

    Live and learn. I wonder which came first, the Singlish/Malaysian English usage or the modern therapeutic et al. usage? I wonder if they developed separately or one from the other.

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