The linguistics of love

“One word frees us from all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.”


Logic and the dictionary are inextricably linked, and yet the most valuable definitions are often intuitive. Intuition, which is antithetical to logic, is the most valuable tool for understanding what is signified by language. So then isn’t it strange that our best hope at understanding words - the dictionary - relies on a thought device in direct opposition to this most valuable resource?

No word more exemplifies this divide between intuitive and official definitions more than the word ‘does love’.. To lexicographers, love is polysemic, which is to say that it has many meanings. Most dictionary entries for love contain around 20 alternative definitions as both noun and verb, and sometimes one or two essays. This is because no definition is adequate – love is a lexicographical anomaly.

Love is often wrongly assumed to be synonymic to copulation or sexual attraction. This is a misconception, though this definition is common to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, The Oxford English Dictionary, and various other lexica.

Love is a verb, but not a particular one (hence its myriad dictionary definitions), and an action must be a particular verb, so love is not an action. If X loves Y, then X is not doing any one particular thing to Y, but X does associate Y with a particular quality of experience.

It is this quality of experience that is intimated by the use of the word ‘love’ in the context of physical intimacy, rather than the act. The material and metaphysical aspects of intercourse are no doubt associated with (and perhaps insoluble from) one another, but to say that they are identical is absurd. And yet this is what the dictionary suggests we believe.

If the dictionary didn’t confuse us enough, don’t forget that we also have the history of language to contend with. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes three different expressions of love used by the ancient Greeks: Eros, philia and agape. Eros is the expression of romantic love, and the root of the word erotic. Philia is the sort of love between people that does not involve romance, like friendship or kinship (this is why Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love). Agape is the divine love that one can have for nature or for thought or for the universe.

For the Greeks, it would seem that the meaning of love is different depending upon who participates in it. But the modern English word is representative of the transcendent concept common to all three expressions, and in that way it is actually very versatile.

In Knee 5 of Phillip Glass’ opera, Einstein on the Beach, the following lines are uttered: (Two Lovers on a Park Bench) has one character, John, say to the woman next to him, “My love for you is higher than the heavens, deeper than Hades, and broader than the earth. It has no limits, no bounds. Everything must have an ending except my love for you." Here, the modern word expresses something common to both eros and agape. This particular usage shows that loving someone can mean a lot more than getting off with them.

However, high versatility comes at a price, which increases the potential for misunderstanding. And with all of its subtleties of use, the word love is often, if not always, misunderstood.

Here is an instance where language fails to express our ideas and instead confounds us and obscures meaning. If useful definitions of intuitive concepts are what you’re looking for, a dictionary is not the place to look. Poets, composers and artists do a much better job of defining loving than do lexicographers.

John Lennon wrote a short song wherein he spoke the words “Love is real, real is love. Love is feeling, feeling love. Love is wanting to be loved.” This is a purely intuitive definition. His mantra-like repetitions and inversions may be sickeningly mystic to the academic mind, but as far as a working definition is concerned, it’s a lot more enlightening than’s “Love (luhv): verb- to have sexual intercourse with.”

Sky Hester
// Lama of Love

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