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The Love That Has No Name

A Personal Perspective: What should we call the love of things?

Homosexuality has been called “the love that dare not speak its name.”[1] Our love for objects and activities, however, is a love that had no name at all.

One of the first things I noticed when I started researching our love for objects, activities, places, products, brands, and all sorts of other things, was there wasn’t a word to describe the topic I was investigating. In most cases, the best term for the love of things is simply love. But there are times when it’s useful to distinguish the love of things from the love of people. And none of English’s more than one million words did the job.

I considered just using the Greek word “philia,” which means non-sexual love (“eros” is the word for sexual love). There are hundreds of English words ending in philia that refer to the non-sexual love of just about anything: Oenophilia is the love of wine, koinophilia is the love of innovation, and there is even hypegiaphilia, meaning the love of responsibility.

Philia was, almost, perfect. But in practice, philia had come to mean “a strong interest in” a topic rather than literally a love of something. Worse yet, there are a few words such as pedophilia and necrophilia that misuse the term philia to mean sexual attraction.

I have searched in vain to find out why sexual attraction to children is called “pedophilia” (literally, the non-sexual love for children) and not pedoerotica (sexual attraction to children). One theory I’ve come across is that the term “pedophile” was coined by pederasts themselves to whitewash their image, but I’ve been unable to locate any substantiation for this claim. And the fact that we also have the term “necrophilia” would imply that the necrophiliacs were in on the same PR campaign with the pedophiles, which doesn’t seem plausible.

My best guess as to the origin of these words is that “pedophile” and similar terms originated as polite euphemisms. The term pedophilia first appeared in print in a psychiatric manual by Krafft-Ebing in 1886. Many of the middle and upper-class people at that time would have received classical educations and would have been more familiar with Greek than most of us are today. That was the height of the Victorian era, so perhaps people thought the word “pedoerotica” would be too explicit for polite company, and they used the term pedophilia instead. In any event, I found that every time I used the word philia to refer to the things we love, I also needed to explain the term pedophilia, and that was a problem.

So, in 1991, with the help of a family friend and classics professor, Dr. Gerta Seligman, I invented the term “philopragia,” which combines "philo" (i.e. "non-sexual love of") and the less familiar Greek word "pragma," which means “everyday things.” Philopragia has a very academic tone—a plus in academia, but not necessarily in the rest of the world. The term didn’t catch on. (Perhaps I overestimated the number of people who spoke ancient Greek?)

In 2006, Barbara Carroll and I published an academic research paper that used the term "brand love" to talk about the love of products and brands. That paper has sometimes been erroneously seen as the origin of the term “brand love,” but it had been used occasionally in the popular press before then. Some authors use the word “product love” to refer to the love of specific possessions ("I love my iPhone") rather than brands (Apple). But those terms don’t cover the vast array of other things people love.

I’ve also considered the Japanese word Otaku, which English Wikipedia defines as: “Someone who has a hobby that they spend more time, money, and effort on than normal people do. They know a lot about their hobby and things related to it; for example, an anime otaku might spend a lot of time watching anime, buy a lot of DVDs and other products, learn about the people who create anime (such as the people who draw it, or the people who make the voices of the characters), or create something (like music or drawings) about anime.”

That’s a pretty good description of the way many people love things, but I doubt a Japanese term would go over much better than a Greek one. Plus, there are also people who love things and aren’t otaku about them. For example, people love old clothes that no longer fit, yet they can’t bear to part with them. In these cases, the clothes usually hang unnoticed in a closet someplace until the thought of getting rid of them comes up. At this point, the person experiences a flood of affection and nostalgia for the item. That’s far from the enthusiasm and engagement that characterize otaku.

In earlier drafts of my book, The Things We Love: How Our Passions Connect Us and Make Us Who We Are, I tried using "non-interpersonal love." Unfortunately, readers told me they found the term too academic sounding (imagine how they would have reacted to “philopragia!"). I decided not to use the term in the book to avoid too academic of a tone. All-in-all, “non-interpersonal love” is probably the best candidate. But since I’ve published an entire book on the topic and not used that term, it’s likely too late to introduce it now. Perhaps another wordsmith will take up the challenge and find more success than I did. For now, the love of things remains a love that has no name.

References

[1] From a line in the 1894 poem Two Loves by Lord Alfred Douglas.

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