February 12, 2010
There’s a holiday around the corner. As we speak, millions of men are trying to find out what to get that special someone. Others are just now realizing how utterly hosed they are since they forgot what day it is. Children are exchanging little candy hearts. Drama is nigh. Oh, it is nigh, my friends.
This is the season when Hallmark and others remind us that love is special and we should show it this day by buying their pink frilly products for the one we love. Saint Valentine’s Day has its roots in Christian antiquity and Geoffrey Chaucer, and while we may be jaded by all the pink and hearts and Zales commercials, this isn’t an article about the holiday. This is, after all, a site devoted to language.
It’s about love.
Poets devote themselves to it. Greeting card companies make a killing from it. Rick Astley will never give you up and he will never let you down. A video told me that last one. Movies tell us how romantic it is. However, I firmly believe it is the one word in English that has lost all meaning. We use the word in casual conversation so much that many of us don’t realize it. Try counting how many times you say “love” in a given day.
People often say you don’t know when you’re in love, that you just know it. It’s funny, but no one ever says you can’t tell when you’re angry, happy, sad, or any other of the vast spectrum of emotions humans feel. We just do. For some reason, “love” is a puzzle box of an emotion, a feeling so rare and mysterious that we don’t even know when we feel it, kind of like someone who is colorblind suddenly seeing red and green for the first time.
Dictionary.com has twenty-two definitions for the word, fourteen nouns, seven verbs and verb phrases, plus six idioms. These cover everything from admiration and longing to sexual desire. Can one word mean so may things?
Part of the problem, like I said, is that we’ve used the word like a roll of duct tape. If it works, okay, fine. We love pizza. We love our country. We love tea in the morning. We’re only happy when it rains. We’re only happy when it’s complicated even though we know you won’t appreciate it. The word’s lost all meaning. It’s not even a word. It’s a comma. Language changes when people change. Dictionaries add new words every year as slang enters common usage and words gain new meanings. I’d love to blame romantic comedies, bad romance novels, or Glenn Beck in some way, but the truth is we’ve interbred the word with different meanings and situations to the point that, were it a horse, it would be sterile and have five legs.
However, there has to be some common ground, something every definition has in common. They all refer to some kind of longing, wanting something or someone. That seems reasonable. If we’re away from the person we love, we want them even more, just like the saying goes. But “longing” is already a word. Besides, it’s too close to “lust” and “greed” in meaning. I’m sure stalkers everywhere could use this definition to justify their actions.
And if you are a stalker and you quote me on this at your trial, I will hurt you in ways they haven’t named yet.
Could it simply be a more severe version of liking something? Does it really just mean you like something very, very, very much? Like, times a million? Maybe I like cheeseburgers, but LOVE flame-broiled bacon cheeseburgers. Is this it? Do you gain enjoyment from something you love? What about unconditional love?
No wonder we’ve been writing about this for centuries. It’s hard. Like Chinese algebra on Viagra.
If it’s simply a word that means we like something so much, why are people willing to die for it? Soldiers, pilots, marines, and sailors all give their lives for the country they love. No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for another. Most of us will agree there are “grades” of love. You don’t “love” your husband or wife the same way you “love” the Beatles. People don’t like God. They love God. What does “love” mean, though?
I once had a good friend tell me to not use the word “love” unless I knew what it meant. I didn’t, not for a long time. I know what it means to me now, and only a few others know it, too. I’ve since wondered how many people can actually know what the word means when they say it. How do they use it? Does it really mean something no other word can describe, or is a placeholder?
Cultures shape their language. Words have power. I took back this one word and gave it meaning. When I say it, it means something no other word can duplicate. What about you?
Ever loved someone?
And did you know what it meant?