MED Magazine - Issue 13 - November 2003

What we talk about when we talk about love
by Diane Nicholls

First in the series of articles on metaphor


A dictionary is far more than just a list of words in the language with their definitions and details of their accompanying grammatical behaviour. It is a vast repository of information about the culture and attitudes in the countries where that language is spoken. It is a snapshot of the way we see things and feel about things, of the images and metaphors which we use, consciously or unconsciously, when we talk about any subject in our lives. Examining and understanding, en masse, the body of vocabulary and phrases which relates to any given subject is a useful way to discover the ideas and attitudes embedded in the words we use. It is also an interesting and efficient way to expand and enrich one's vocabulary.

Unlike idioms, which generally allow very little freedom for variation or invention, metaphors can be adapted, built upon and played with, so long as the central idea remains intact. Once we have grasped the core ideas relating to a topic in English, we can start to use these to create our own metaphors using synonyms to make our language more fluent, inventive, poetic, or even amusing. These novel uses may even catch on and find their way into future editions of the dictionary.

This month we look at love. What do we talk about when we talk about love? Using SmartSearch on the Macmillan English Dictionary (MED) CD-ROM to search for the word love* and selecting headwords, phrases and definitions in the more search options box, we find no less than 311 dictionary entries containing the word love and its inflections. Already, this tells us that we are dealing with an important topic in the language, and one on which we have a lot to say.

Looking through the nouns listed in the results panel, we see that, rather than being a clearly circumscribed concept which exists in only one form, there are many different kinds of love: cupboard love; first love; free love; puppy love; tough love; true love; unconditional love; unrequited love. In the case of free love, of course, we have a euphemism where love refers to sexual intercourse, as it also does in the modern sense of the verb to make love.

Love is illness and suffering

Love is something which people are said to 'fall' into (sometimes head over heels), which suggests that love is something the lover has no control over and also reflects another image of love as illness, since we also talk about 'falling ill'. In fact, the dictionary reveals that we often use the same vocabulary to talk about love as we use to talk about illness. The lover is said to 'have it bad' or to be 'in the throes of' love, in the same way that we would also talk about someone suffering from an illness. Even the word passion, which is used to describe the lover's emotion, has its roots in the notion of suffering, as it came from the past participle of the Latin verb pati, meaning to suffer. The lover is described as lovesick, and as being struck on somebody or stricken with love, in the same way that diseases and disasters 'strike' people down and lightning 'strikes'. In French, this 'striking' metaphor is used even more blatantly in the equivalent expression for 'love at first sight' - 'le coup de foudre' (literally, a bolt of lightning). The adjective smitten is given two senses in MED: 1. in love with someone; 2. seriously affected by something such as an illness or emotion. Note that these days, the in love sense is more frequent than the ill sense.

The lover is mad or a fool

When somebody is in love, we describe them using the same words we use to talk about mental illness or foolishness. A person can be mad/crazy/daft/gaga/potty/nuts about someone, or can be madly in love. The verb to dote was borrowed into English from Middle Dutch doten, meaning to be silly, so that when we say that somebody dotes on another person, we are saying that they are making themselves foolish or silly. The term moonstruck has been used to describe the lover since the seventeenth century, and is based on the belief that the moon has a negative affect on a person's mental stability. The MED definition of moonstruck is: behaving in a silly or slightly crazy way, especially when you are in love. When we say that somebody is infatuated, we are using a word which came from sixteenth-century Latin, from the past participle of the verb infatuare, meaning 'to make foolish'. And when we describe the lover as besotted, we are also saying that he has become a sot (i.e. a drunkard or a fool).

Love is hot and love burns

Defining emotions in terms of temperature is a metaphor which has long been deeply embedded in the language. Most of our human emotions exist metaphorically at some point along a temperature scale: anger and enthusiasm are hot; indifference is lukewarm; fear and antipathy are cold, for example. Love, of course, is one of our 'hottest' emotions. Love can be burning and hot. It can also be ardent (from Latin ardere, meaning 'to burn'). Something which inspires love or affection is described as melting. And love is described using the same vocabulary we use to talk about fires: we talk about kindling or rekindling our love or of a relationship losing its spark or cooling. Former lovers are referred to as old flames.

The beloved must be conquered

Enshrined in our language is the notion that the heart, which is the metaphorical seat of love, must be captured, won or stolen. We talk about the way to someone's heart as though the heart is a place to which access must be gained, whether by cunning or dogged determination. And we describe the lover who has gained access to their loved-one's heart as having captured/conquered/stolen/won someone's love/heart. The person who falls in love loses their heart to someone. And in the expression All's fair in love and war we see further evidence of the twin ideas that trying to gain someone's love is a 'campaign', in the same way that war is often seen as such, and that it is therefore outside of the usual rules of behaviour. When someone sets their sights on someone, they are metaphorically aiming a gun at them. The cupid myth, with its bows and arrows must surely have played an important part in the growth of this metaphor.

Love is togetherness

When a couple are happy and their relationship is considered a success, we talk about the two people being together, close, tight, inseparable, involved, an item. But when the relationship comes to an end, the central idea is of starting to move along separately again, like former travelling companions: go your separate ways, split up, drift/grow apart, part company.

Relationships are fragile

Another central image is one of 'breaking' or 'fragmentation'. Cracks start to appear in relationships, which some couples try to patch up. Problems can wreck, rupture or tear apart a relationship. Couples bust, split or break up. People break off relationships or their relationships break down. Marriages and engagements are broken. Sometimes couples choose to make a clean break.

The rejected lover is rubbish

Deeply embedded in the vocabulary of ending a relationship is the image of the injured party as 'rubbish'. Here are common informal verbs for ending a relationship: chuck, drop, ditch, dump. Note that in all of these the object of the verb is not the relationship but the rejected former partner. With all of these verbs, the meaning of throwing away rubbish precedes the metaphorical meaning of rejecting a romantic partner. Similarly, the expressions be given the boot, give someone the heave-ho and give someone the push are both used to describe, first and foremost, the action of giving someone the sack from a job, but the meaning is extended metaphorically to rejecting one's partner in a romantic relationship. Having learnt the relationship metaphors of throwing away rubbish or ending somebody's employment, we could say, without fear of being misunderstood, that somebody has 'binned' or 'sacked' their partner.

The metaphors and expressions listed above are all taken from the Macmillan English Dictionary and are not intended as a comprehensive list. We would be pleased to hear from any reader who can suggest any other love metaphors that might be added to this portrait of love in English.

Further reading

The Language of Metaphors, Andrew Goatly (Routledge, 1997)
Metaphors We Live By, G. Lakoff and M. Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1980)

Next in the series

Next month, we will take a look at what we talk about when we talk about money.

The title of this article is taken from the title of a short story by Raymond Carver.

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