Why we deserve more than one word for our multiplicity of feelings

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Love.

It’s the most common theme for pop songs and novellas.

We all want to be loved.

We’re told love makes the world go around (hint: it doesn’t; that’s actually the job of angular momentum).

We all agree that love is a Very Good Thing Indeed.

The problem is: we don’t know what we mean by love.

I love my children. I love hiking in the Swiss Alps. One word, two very different feelings. Because I really don’t think I’d love to hike over my children or want to take the Swiss Alps with me on a trip to Yellowstone National Park.

The classical Greeks made an attempt to be slightly clearer about what they meant, using ἀγάπη for friendly love and ἔρως for erotic love.

But frankly that doesn’t really help all that much.

I love my friend Bryan and I loved my mother. Neither constituted erotic love but the feelings I had for each person were quite different. And anyone who’s been around the sexual block a few times knows that there’s a great variety of erotic feelings of love as well.

Some people don’t think there’s a problem with having a one-size-fits-all approach to love, but imagine this: what if we only had the word color to describe the entire spectrum our eyes can perceive?

“Hey Fred, I just saw a colored bird! It was amazing!”

“Look for the house that’s painted in color.”

“What a lovely rainbow! So much color!”

And what if we only had the word taste?

“Henry, try this. It has taste.”

When things are important to us, we try to describe them more adequately. We invent measures and scales. We have tall people and short people; even better, we can say someone is 1.78 meters tall and weighs 84.3 kilograms.

(Or, in the USA, it’s probably something like 17 3/4 sticks tall and 46 cups heavy; in the UK it would be something in pebbles, stones, and rocks. But that’s the road to madness so we won’t stray in that direction any further.)

We can say that the various shades of the spectrum we perceive as red span from 625 to 740 nanometers, and if we wish we can be very precise and state that a particular shade corresponds to a particular wavelength. If we were unable to do this, engineers wouldn’t be able to design monitor screens that faithfully reproduce what the camera captures.

Some people may think that emotions can’t be defined, that they are somehow ineffable. But this is just lazy thinking, no different from back when people thought there was no way to explain why rain fell from the sky or why muscles move when we want them to. There’s nothing magical about feelings that separate them from the rest of the universe we briefly inhabit during our short lives. Feelings are the result of neurochemical processes inside our bodies. This means we can observe them, measure them, and understand them better.

It’s simply that we haven’t bothered to make the effort to invent more words for love because for the most part we haven’t noticed there’s a problem. When Jane says “I love ice-cream” and Sally says “I love Mike,” we internally adjust our interpretation of the word love in order to account for the fact that it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that they mean the same thing when they use the same word.

Unfortunately this auto-adjust routine we employ can lead to mistakes.

Tony says, “I love Helen and I love Collette. How can I choose between them?” Almost certainly he doesn’t love the two women in the same way because they are different people and his responses to them are accordingly likely to be different also. But stuck with a single word love, Tony can’t discern the subtle differences between his feelings. It’s just as if Helen was red and Collette was blue so to Tony they were both color (being the only word he has for the entire spectrum, as per our example above) and so he’s got no way to describe, even to himself, the differences that could possibly enable him to understand his feelings more completely.

“I love you,” can be misinterpreted in potentially damaging ways, especially when the receiving party desperately wants to hear something the sending party isn’t actually saying.

Parents who bring a new romantic partner into the family often struggle to explain to young children how the love the parent feels for their children isn’t the same as the love they feel for the new partner. It’s sometimes critical for the children to know the difference, but the words simply aren’t there.

I bet, if you stop to think about it for a moment, you too can think of plenty of examples where the poverty of a single word covering hundreds of different meanings leads to problems.

Sure, we can always use a runway’s length of qualifiers to attempt to be more precise about what we mean, but this is very much a second-best option. Imagine saying, “I saw a great color plant this morning, not the same color as the mailbox and not the same color as our car and not the same color as the bathroom walls and not the same color as Mary’s hat but sort of a little bit like the color of Pete’s school lunchbox only more like when we saw that tree last year when its leaves were turned all color…”

Our feelings of love in all their hundreds of forms, comprise perhaps the most important and profound emotions we get to experience.

Surely they deserve a little more than a single one-size-doesn’t-fit-all four letter word?

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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