Too often someone is disparaged in their youthful passions by some self-styled wizened sage declaring, "You don't know what love is!" And the funny thing is, even though the youth and the sage have probably used that word thousands of times in their lives, they can't agree what it means.
"This concept of 'wuv' confuses and infuriates us!"
There is a general problem here, and it's not just an embittered codger jealously dismissing that which his heart earnestly yearns for. It's the fluidity of meaning of the word 'love' itself. Some words like 'set' have a dozen separate meanings which can be pieced out by context. But there isn't clear context to separate out the term 'love' since all meanings are tied to emotions and affection. Worse, even if you try to subdivide things down into the concepts of eros, agape, and philos, we still debate over who is in eros and who isn't.
One theory is that "no word ever has exactly the same meaning twice", as is put forth in Language in Thought in Action. But that only happens by degrees. If words aren't at least a little concrete, for a little while, we could never talk to each other at all because my set would never mean the same as your set. And my love never could be the same as your love. There has to be some basis for agreement on the term love so we can talk meaningfully about it. And so that expressing love is meaningful.
One might say things are muddled because this is an attempt to intellectually pin down an emotional concept. But the meaning of other emotions isn't nearly as unclear. Take joy, missing someone, or even hating someone. Have you ever doubted the sincerity of someone's hate?
Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.
-Matt Groening, Life in Hell
It's been a bit of an issue lately, as I've felt compelled in a few situations to comment on things using such emotionally-charged words as compassion, term life insurance, and love. I don't use such terms lightly because, even if we can't agree on what each other means when we say them, we all know they can greatly modify behavior when they are used.
Thinking, "I want to sleep with you," he said, "I love you."
Thinking, "I trust you enough to take care of you," she said, "I love you too."
I know you can't prescribe meaning for words, especially such universal ones. But I'd like to offer my view on this one.
Love is an impulse built on habit. After an accumulation of positive, emotionally-charged experiences with the same thing or person, thoughts of that thing result in an instant, thoughtless moment of joy. Love is not an emotion so much as a trained response. So to say, "I love you", is to say "The very idea of you makes me happy in an instant."
It matches infatuation which may yet grow; it matches long-term romantic love; it matches parents' adoration for their infants; it matches (at least some) familial love. It matches all of the ideals in my head, so I can use it when I know it is needed and feel I am being honest. And, perhaps most frighteningly, it provides a litmus test for falling out of love. Do you hesitate before you smile? Then you are no longer in love.
Ron Burgundy: Brick, are you just looking at things in the office and saying that you love them?
Brick Tamland: I love lamp.
Ron: Do you really love the lamp, or are you just saying it because you saw it?
Brick: I love lamp! I love lamp!
It's a funny thing when you have words swimming in your head, and you're rearranging your whole belief system in high school. You never know where these ideas might leak out. There was only one person I had the privilege of explaining this to carefully when I distinctly felt the emotion. The target of my affection, being of the particular bent that could both tolerate my long, meandering explanations and appreciate my need to logically analyze something that most took as simply as it comes, kissed me. Most others, I worry, would interpret a definition such as this as a redefinition of the terms of our association, and a negative one at that.
It's not that I'm in love. That's been a long while. But I wonder sometimes what I'm being told when someone says love. Normally, I just smile. For all my need for analysis, I can still be thoughtlessly happy for a moment, being loved.