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A humorous, staged photograph (circa 1904) depicting an attempted elopement with clichéd ladder to the prospective bride's upstairs bedroom. The bride has fallen down the ladder, knocking over her beau and waking her father.

To elope, most literally, merely means to run away.[1] More specifically, elopement is often used to refer to a marriage conducted in sudden and secretive fashion, usually involving hurried flight away from one's place of residence together with one's beloved with the intention of getting married.

In England, a legal prerequisite of marriage was the "reading of the banns" — for the three Sundays prior to the intended date of the ceremony, the names of every couple intending marriage had to be read aloud by the priest(s) of their parish(es) of residence. The intention of this was to prevent bigamy or other unlawful marriages by giving fair warning to anybody who might have a legal right to object.[2] In practice, however, it also gave warning to the couples' parents, who sometimes objected on purely personal grounds. To contravene this law, it was necessary to get a special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury — or to flee somewhere the law did not apply, across the border to Gretna Green, Scotland, for instance.

In the United States, marriage law can differ from state to state, which sometimes leads couples to cross state lines to be married. Some states, for example, require blood tests (for STDs such as syphilis) or waiting periods before marriage; a couple wishing to wed quickly (before, usually, their parents could object) might travel to a state without such a rule. In the musical Guys and Dolls, for instance, Lt. Brannigan suggests that Nathan Detroit and Adelaide, his fiancée of fourteen years, elope to Elkton, Maryland, which does not require a blood test. Restriction on civil rights have also been a reason for elopements. In many states interracial marriage was once illegal, which led to elopements.

Today the term "elopement" is colloquially used for any marriage performed in haste or in private or without a public period of engagement; it is also sometimes used for well-attended and elaborately-planned marriages when they occur away from home.

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