What is Love


They say the Eskimos have 50 different words for snow.  Or they used to; it’s become a bitter debate among linguists, made worse by the fact that you can’t call people Eskimos anymore.

But anyway, those northern Native Americans distinguish many types of snow.  If you’re going to walk five miles across ice fields to hunt seals when it’s fifty degrees below, it matters what kind of snow it is.

But 50 terms for snow would hardly be excessive.  thesaurus.com lists 52 synonyms for the adjective angry in English.  And 53 synonyms for the verb hit.

It lists only 18 synonyms for the verb love.  I’ve used thesaurus.com for years, and that’s the fewest synonyms I remember seeing for any word.

If love is important to us, why have we got so few words for it?  Even the “synonyms” we have are no good; the top of the list is admire, cherish, choose, and go for.

We haven’t got a word to distinguish romantic love from motherly love or brotherly love.  We haven’t got a verb for ‘lust’ or ‘friendship’ that takes a direct object.  We have a shocking paucity of words for love.  So few that ‘love’ is barely a word.  It’s used in so many ways that it hardly means anything at all.

If the Eskimo Inuit, Yupik, and various other tribes have many words for snow because it’s important, does that mean love is unimportant to us?

No; just the opposite:  We have only one word for love because it’s so important that it’s dangerous.

When you talk about snow, you want people to know precisely what kind of snow you’re talking about.  When you talk about love, you want people not to know what you’re talking about.

Imagine you’re a man, and your girlfriend or wife asks you, “Do you love me?”  You are, as stipulated, a man, so odds are your greatest act of introspection into your feelings was two years ago when you finally decided to switch from Busch to Yuengling.  How strong does liking have to be, to be love?  “Do you love me more than you love the Steelers?”  Let’s be honest:  there are many women in your state, and only one pro football team.  It’s not a fair comparison.

Now imagine there are 50 words for 50 different types of love, and each night, she asks you about a different one of them.


If we named as many varieties of love as we’ve named ways of moving slowly, I suspect the word for the predominant romantic emotion that most women feel when they say “love” would be one that most men have never felt.  And wouldn’t that make for some interesting late-night conversations?

But that’s not an explanation.  If there’s an international male conspiracy to obliterate synonyms for ‘love’, I wasn’t told about it.

(Though that’s just what I would say, isn’t it?)

I think ‘love’ is like ‘God’ with a capital ‘G’.  When there were many gods, people ascribed different qualities to each.  But after Plato said ‘god’ had a single abstract essence, and Jesus said that essence was perfection, every good thing became part of God’s definition.  (Hence some philosophers believed God must be a perfect sphere.)

So every good and positive human emotion got sucked into the word ‘love’.  Still, that doesn’t explain why any more-specific terms disappeared.  And it’s still suspiciously convenient.