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Why We Say We're "In Love"

A single word can't express the many loves we feel.

Key points

  • The word "love" in English comes from a root that can mean either caring or desire.
  • Some languages have words for different types of love that do not have a direct translation.
  • Adding "in" to love seems to mark an important conceptual difference for people.

Love. The root of this word existed well before English speakers came around and the complexity of emotion it represents has fueled philosophical debate since antiquity. But, despite such longevity, the meaning of love is still sometimes hard to untangle.

What is Love?

The Old English word lufu, from which modern love came, derived from the ancient Proto-Indo European root leubh, which carried the sense of caring or desire. While our Western sense of love as having a deep connection with someone developed from this sense of caring, the modern word libido emerged from this same root, suggesting that the tension between affection and sexual desire has been around for a long time.

Indeed, in looking at the various categories of love, psychologists have posited several different main types or "flavors," ranging from familial love to platonic love to self-love to romantic love. Languages often don’t have specific words to delineate among these various categories and vary extensively in which types they encode in their lexicon and how well they translate across other languages.

For instance, the Australian aboriginal language Pintupi has the word kanyininpa, translating roughly into "holding," which denotes a form of nurturing and caring love between parent and child. While an English speaker may understand this form of love and even talk about it as something like maternal or paternal love, in Pintupi, it has been lexicalized—given a unique word that encodes that specific meaning.

Because English uses just one word for a broad range of distinct types—we can love our friends and we can love our partners and just as readily as we can love apple pie—it is not surprising that subtle differences in how we talk about loving those things might reveal qualitative differences in the types of love we are expressing.

What Does It Mean to Be "In Love"?

Lexical and semantic gaps exist in a language when there are certain concepts that speakers want to talk about for which they do not have words. In such cases, words can be borrowed from other languages, or existing words can be combined or added to in new ways that allow speakers to express that meaning. And, so, it seems, English has done just that with a critical distinction between love that involves strong affection and romantic love that involves sexual desire.

What is this difference? The idea of being "in love" as opposed to simply "love." In a study in the 1990s, which presented people with consecutive prompts asking them to list those they loved vs. those with whom they were in love (presented in random order), researchers discovered that participants seem to view these as conceptually distinct categories. Not surprisingly, the list of people they "loved" was quite a bit larger than the list of people they listed under "in love," suggesting that the concept of love is viewed as encompassing those whom one is in love with, but not vice versa.

The difference in large part seemed to rest on whether or not there was sexual desire. The researchers also asked participants to list people they were sexually attracted to, finding there was a large cross-over in listings between the "in love" category and the "sexual desire" category—but much less so between the "love" category and the "sexual desire" category.

These results suggest that the common refrain that you can love someone, but not be in love with them, hinges on the difference between feeling care and affection vs. passion.

Not Enough Words

What these studies on the meaning of love both within English and in other languages suggest is that, in English, love is semantically broad and somewhat generic.

The varied senses that love has come to express makes it more difficult to tease out where the boundaries between the types of love are because of the vagueness of the word we use. This is what drives our need to use descriptive terms and metaphors—falling in and out of love, motherly love, burning love—suggesting that, regardless of what your love language might be, English’s love language is pretty impoverished—and that this one tiny little "in" is a key marker of which type of love we are experiencing.

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Lomas, T. (2018). The flavours of love: A cross‐cultural lexical analysis. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 48(1), 134–152.

Meyers, S. A., & Berscheid, E. (1997). The language of love: The difference a preposition makes. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 347-362.

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