“Canoodle” means to kiss and cuddle amorously, to pet or fondle.
The origin is unknown, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that in the 1830s, the word was used in Britain in a sense of “cheat” or “overpower.” Folk etymology cites the use of two-person canoes to escape a chaperon by couples during Victorian and Edwardian times. And, today, “canoodling” means the playful public displays of affection by couples who are head over heels in love.
The canoe has been used extensively for transportation and commercial purposes, but it was during the Victorian era, a time of strict morals and behavior, that it became popular both as a recreational vehicle and as a mode of courtship. At that time, attitudes toward romance and marriage went through a dramatic shift. Marriage ceased to be about necessity or convenience. Largely because of literacy and the popularity romantic novels, it became more about two people falling in love.
Courtship became the popular path to marriage, as long as the courting couple was accompanied by a guardian devoted to maintaining “proper” behavior. Privacy and sex were reserved for marriage.
The canoe was the best option for escaping a chaperon because there was no room for a third person. You might bicycle to a park and, perhaps, leave a chaperon panting far behind, but a canoe could offer more privacy by letting the couple slip into a hidden cove or behind a low-hanging willow. That romantic image was portrayed in 1878, in The Canoe Speaks, by Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, who paddled through France and Belgium.
There was a theory that a young couple could hardly get into compromising positions in something so tippy and awkward as a canoe. So canoe courtship earned somewhat naive approval. But, as Pierre Berton is rumored to have said, “A true Canadian is one who can make love in a canoe without tipping.”
Canoe manufacturers were quick to take advantage of the courting factor and produced sleek vehicles known as “courting canoes,” the Victorian ancestors of the 1960s
“shag wagon.” Some canoes had parasol stands and others came with fold-up gramophones.
The decade following World War I was the time of the “New Woman.” One popular theme in postcards was to show a woman alone and insisting, “I can paddle my own canoe.” Another shows a sad-looking young woman saying: “I can paddle my own canoe, but it’s awful lonesome.”
There were songs, too. In My Canoe, from 1913, says: “In my canoe we’ll hide among the willows close by the shore where no one can see. I’ll cuddle you and snuggle you if you’ll cuddle me.”
At least canoodlers no longer have to learn how to swim.