For those of us not familiar, the verb to know once had an archaic sexual sense, often found in the Old Testament, and as illustrated in the following story found in Genesis 19:
4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.
5 And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”
6 Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him,
7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly.”
8 “Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
This story is used Biblically to illustrate why Sodom was truly a wicked city and deserved to be destroyed: Despite Lot’s offering his daughters to the evil men of Sodom to fulfill their rape fantasies, they opt instead for 1) homosexual relations, 2) to assault Lot’s favored guests and 3) to assault God-sent angels (albeit, in disguise.)
When I look things up on the Online Etymology Dictionary, it says,
The Anglo-Saxons used two distinct words for this, witan (see wit) and cnawan. Meaning “to have sexual intercourse with” is attested from c.1200, from the O.T.
OK, cool. So it seems to be telling us that those first English translators of the Hebrew Old Testament were the ones who first adopted this new meaning of to know.
But my question is: Why did they choose know in the first place? What made this seem like a good word to translate to? Did it have a closely related sense in Old English that made it easy to slightly shift its meaning? (“To intimately know”, perhaps?) Or was it that they were so puritanical about writing vulgar thoughts in a Holy Book that they consciously chose know as a euphemism so as not to distract readers from their communion with God’s Word? Does anybody know anything? I’d appreciate any thoughts.
The word used in the situations you described is (transliterated) yada, which simply means “to know” and is often translated (in different circumstances) find, understand, comprehend and acknowledge.
Considering some of the situations presented in the Old Testament (drunken incest of Lot and his daughters, rape of Dinah, rather suggestive imagery in Song of Solomon, etc), I doubt euphemisms would even be considered necessary; however, Strong’s concordance suggests it is used euphemistically (in addition to other senses) in the Hebrew.
I imagine those who translated earlier (KJV) would not have seen reason to translate yada any differently when it referred to sex (they rarely translated words differently solely for the sake of clarity), whereas newer translations (NASB), more for the sake of clarity than anything, use another euphemism (ie. had relations with). I doubt any translators would find a reason to change a euphemism in the original language into something more graphic.