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Redefining Love

By Jim Cocola

I adore you. I feel an intense adulation for you. I am affectionate toward you. I am extremely attached to you. I cherish you, and dote on you. In fact, I am devoted to you. I fancy you. I am quite fond of you. I am infatuated with you. I feel very passionately about you. I idolize and worship you. I relish and savor you. I take great pleasure in you. I will always treasure you. You are my best friend. I like you. In other words, I don't love you. If I did I would have said so.

We all know the old I-like-you-as-a-friend routine, which is fine for a romance gone wrong. But why should it be difficult to say "I love you" if you really mean it?

For one, love has always been a tough concept to define. It falls into that tricky set of words like "art" and "truth" that are useful for abstract conversation but unsettling when it comes to concrete application.

Increasingly open attitudes toward diverse lifestyles, a relaxed moral atmosphere regarding pre-marital sex and rising divorce rates have all contributed to an increased blurriness regarding the definition of love. They have expanded our notion of love, but in the process they have also diluted it.

While love may be fundamentally emotional in nature, the struggle to form an intellectualized conception of love is not made in vain. Rather, one's understanding of love can be improved by an exploration of its etymological history.

The roots of the word "love" can be traced back to the Indo-European root leubh, meaning "to care" or "to desire," approximated from words including the Latin lubet, "it pleases" and the Sanskrit lubhyati, "he desires." Along with "love," related English words like "libido" and "belief" also descend from *lebuh.

According to The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Words, while the word "love" initially meant "find pleasing," it later took on associations with "praise," "trust" and "belief." Thus, the etymology and experience of love resemble each other quite closely. As far as we can tell, both are first about pleasure, later about admiration but finally about trust.

One of the earliest extant American sources to define "love" was the 1828 Webster's New American Dictionary, which described "love between the sexes" as "a compound affection, consisting of esteem, benevolence, and animal desire." Throughout the 19th century this definition underwent significant alterations, until the same entry in the 1904 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary read, "a feeling of intimate personal sympathy and affection toward an individual of the opposite sex." In both cases, love is equated with affection. But didn't the 1828 definition pack a considerably larger wallop in terms of its candidness and discrimination?

Recently, "love" has been redefined to an even further degree of attenuation. In 1957, Webster's Second International Dictionary defined love as "tender and passionate affection for one of the opposite sex." But love is a complex, gritty emotion, not a simple, romantic one. While tenderness and passion may characterize love's finer moments, everyday love is far more profound, and far more subtle than that.

The most current definition of "love" appears in Webster's Third International Dictionary of 1993. It is the poorest definition to date, because it is the most fragmented. While one entry defines "love" as "the attraction based on sexual desire," another calls it "the affection and tenderness felt by lovers." This separation is grossly inadequate, for love is an integration, not an alternation, of desire and affection.

The history of the word "love" is replete with discrepancies and transformations. Must the heart also be subject to such shifting and bounding where love is concerned?

This Valentine's Day, remember that love is never a recipe with a list of specific ingredients meant to be mixed in a formulaic proportion. Love combines desire, affection and a number of feelings without names in a manner that can't be charted or even defined. Love contains multitudes, and ultimately it is ineffable.

According to my late grandmother, it wouldn't be love if it were any other way. In the absence of a consensus from the dictionaries, consider her homemade definition, "that tickle around your heart that you can't scratch."

Jim Cocola '98 is a history and literature concentrator and a resident of Winthrop House. His column will appear on alternate Mondays.

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