“What’s Love Got to Do With It?” A Valentine’s Post

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The month of February is traditionally the ‘season of love’. So, this month’s blog post takes a peek at the word ‘love’ and the many uses of this particularly flexible term. We’re sad to say that while it won’t answer the question ‘what is love?’, nor pave the way to finding love, we will explore some of the uses (and abuses) of the word in contemporary discourse.

Love across the Ages

Many of us will have come across phrases or slogans that use the concept of ‘love’ as their central metaphor. These have become so common as to be idiomatic in English.  I mean, have you ever used the phrase ‘there’s no love lost between us’ to describe a negative relationship you have with someone? Or perhaps your parents or grandparents have sardonically described a couple they’ve seen in the street as ‘love’s young dream’?

What about expressions such as ‘for the love of god!’ used to express frustration? Or, when refusing to engage with something, have you ever used the phrase ‘I can’t get tickets for love nor money’? Of course, there’s always ‘love is blind’, a saying found in antiquity in both Greek and Latin literature, and used by both Chaucer and Shakespeare. No? Well, if you’re a tennis fan, what about the tennis scoring: ‘15-love’, which is a term first used in the 18th century to describe ‘no score’ and comes from the notion of playing ‘for love’ and thus sometimes ‘playing for nothing’?

Photo by Tony Fischer CC by 2.0 Flickr

One of the most famous slogans of the 20th century, ‘make love not war’, is one associated with the peace-loving hippie culture and anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s in the US.  In literature too, we find another famous axiom about love. In the last verse of Canto 27 of ‘In Memoriam’ by the Victorian poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, proclaims ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all’. Often quoted in relation to lost romantic loves, the poem was an elegy for his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam who died suddenly at the age of 22.

A more combative maxim is the declaration that ‘all’s fair in love and war’; it’s a phrase used as early as the 16th century, and we still hear it in popular culture today – even Cosmo magazine got in on the act, suggesting in its advice pages that a girlfriend can stop her boyfriend playing video games and get his attention with this pithy advice: ‘All’s fair in love and war, so flick the trip switch in the fuse box. Without electricity, he’s forced to surrender his console and get back to basics’ (August 2005).    

The Language(s) of Love

Most people are probably aware of the fact that the Greeks had several different words for different types of love: agape, meaning a kind of divine or spiritual love; philia meaning friendship and affection; storge meaning a kind of familial love; and eros, referring to passionate and romantic love or desire. Similarly, languages such as Arabic have at least eleven words for love, each of which conveys a different stage of the process of falling in love, according to Faraan Sayed, who states:

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The word ‘hawa’, for example, describes the initial attraction or inclining of the soul or mind towards another. The term comes from the root word ‘h-w-a’ – a transient wind that can rise and fall. ‘Alaaqa’, which comes from the root word (‘a-l-q) which means ‘to cling on to’ describes the next stage when the heart begins to attach itself to the beloved, before evolving into a blind desire ‘ishq’ and all-consuming love ‘shaghaf’. The final stage of falling in love, ‘huyum’, describes the complete loss of reason. Interestingly, the most common word for love in Arabic, ‘hubb’, comes from the same root as the word ‘seed’ – that which has the potential to grow into something beautiful. The word for heart, ‘qalb’, comes from the root word (q-l-b), meaning to flip or turn something over. Although the word refers to the physical heart, spiritually the root word becomes appropriate when we think of our hearts as something constantly turning over emotions, decisions and opinions. Be careful to pronounce the first letter correctly as the word ‘kalb’ translates as ‘dog’, and is very insulting.

In English we can find the verb ge-lufian, meaning ‘to love’ or ‘to esteem’, or in its noun form lufu in Old English describing a ‘deep affection’ (if you didn’t know, the period of Old English is considered to be the 5th century to the 12th century AD). In Old English, for example, we find the phrase ‘Hé wæs fram eallum mannum lufad’ (meaning ‘he was loved by all men’). It is a word inherited from Germanic (English belongs to the West Germanic language family which is part of a larger family of related languages called Indo-European).

In fact, we can trace the word love all the way back to Sanskrit as *leubh meaning care and/or to feel strong desire. While there was always a sexual undertone to the word ‘love’, it wasn’t until around the 16th century that ‘love’ was much more emphatically linked with sex with plenty of collocations that euphemistically refer to the sexual act of ‘making love’ and its results, such as ‘love brat’ (1805) (which we would have termed ‘love child’ in the 20th century and means a child born out of wedlock but isn’t frequently used due to changes in society that make the phrase redundant).

Cinematic Discourses of Love

While the etymological roots of the word love provide a rear-view mirror perspective, what about today’s usages? Do we use the word more or less than we used to? How do we use it? What’s perennially fascinating about words is that sometimes they lose their caché, or use value; they undergo a semantic shift, or sometimes become obsolete.  

One of the big questions is whether words such as love have lost their force in a postmodern world of irony and knowingness (or is that a post-postmodern world?). This kind of question came to the fore clearly in the 1980s and 1990s, summarized neatly by Umberto Eco in Reflections on The Name of the Rose (1994) in which he discusses the postmodern. Eco states:

The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed… must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you madly,’’ because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but loves her in an age of lost innocence. (pp. 67-68)

Popular culture was quick to catch on to this seeming impossibility of language and the often perceived ‘naffness’ of the word love in one of the biggest cinematic hits of the 1990s. Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) sees the stumbling and mumbling protagonist Charles attempt to express his feelings for his love interest Carrie (a seemingly very cultured woman – see Eco above) towards the end of the film. In line with postmodernism’s suspicion that language always fails us or is somehow inadequate, Charles discovers he can’t articulate what he feels in the language expected of him (or he is keenly aware of 1990s postmodern cynicism), and in one of the most excruciating examples of circumlocution ever witnessed in British cinema, Charles tells Carrie:

Charles finally tells Carrie he loves her….

“Sorry.. look. Sorry, sorry. I just, ehm, well, this is a really stupid question and… particularly in view of our recent shopping excursion, but I just wondered, by any chance, ehm, eh, I mean obviously not because I’m a git who’s only slept with 9 people, but-but I-I just wondered… ehh. I really feel, ehh, in short, to recap it slightly in a clearer version, eh, the words of David Cassidy in fact, um, while he was still with the Partridge family, eh, “I think I love you,” and eh, I-I just wondered whether by any chance you wouldn’t like to… Eh… Eh… No, no, no of course not… I’m an idiot, he’s not… Excellent, excellent, fantastic, eh, I was gonna say lovely to see you, sorry to disturb… Better get on.”

But this was not new; the 1990s didn’t have the monopoly on the sense that the word love, and its associated feelings, wasn’t enough or was too naïve a concept to be used with any authenticity. Woody Allen, in what is known as one of the most famous ‘nervous romances’ of the period, Annie Hall (1977), equally finds using the word love, if not excruciating, then at least insufficient to his needs. Standing in the dusk light, by the river in New York, Alvy and Annie attempt to confirm their love for one another. When asked by Annie if he loves her, Alvy replies: ‘Yeah, of course but love is too weak a word for the way I feel about you. I lurve you, I loave you, I luff you – with two fs. I have to invent words…’ 

Alvy and Annie declare their ‘luff’ or ‘lurve’ for one another….

In Alvy’s case, love seems too small a word and it is perhaps unsuited to the complexity of such a feeling. Instead, amusingly, he attempts to invent a new word or adapt the existing word to express his feelings. The film is all about the problem of heterosexual love in the 1970s (in a post 60s sexual revolution, and second wave feminist sense); that is, traditional notions of love and courtship have all but broken down since the advent of such cultural changes.

Allen gets around this quandary on how to express love through the cinematic medium, which relies on a different kind of language (visual and non-verbal). His feelings spill into the film’s more visceral shots of the urban landscape of New York with its high-rise apartments, bridges and park vistas, and its noisy streets, to its novel use of visual techniques (for the time). One of these inventive techniques includes the use of subtitles that contradict each of the characters’ spoken dialogue (which we and they hear) in a kind of inner monologue about the state of their actual feelings (nervousness, desire and self-consciousness). So, the audience sees what they’re thinking, although these thoughts are not communicated to each another. The scene clearly demonstrates the difficulty of relaying ideas and complex feelings, through language, particularly intimate ones contained in that tiny, four-letter word: love.  


Allen, W. [Dir.] (1977) Annie Hall. [DVD] US: United Artists.

Eco, U. (1994) Reflections on The Name of the Rose. London:Minerva.

‘Love’ (and its various usages/idioms), Retrieved from Oxford English Dictionary.

Newell, M. [Dir.] (1994) Four Weddings and a Funeral. [DVD] Rank Film Distributors: UK.

Sayed, F. (2015) A Few Surprising Facts about the Arabic Language. In Voices Magazine. Retrieved from British Council website, here.