Love is a (nearly) useless word

Confession: I hate the word “love” the way some people hate the word “moist.”


It’s not that I’m a cold-hearted skeptic. I certainly feel love, in some cases more deeply than I understand. My problem is that because of the way we use “love” in modern, English-speaking culture, the word is essentially meaningless. And when words don’t have meaning, they have no power, and since love is arguably the most powerful force in all of creation, it irks me that we’ve diluted it with overuse until it’s on verbal par with “like” and “awesome.”

A brief list of things we love:

  • tacos
  • kitty jellybean toes
  • sex
  • thunderstorms
  • chocolate cake
  • grandma
  • our kids
  • our best friend
  • Beyoncé
  • God

Isn’t it weird that we use the same word to describe our relationship with each one of those things even though the quality of those relationships is wildly different? (At least, I hope so. If you feel the same way about kitty jellybean toes as you do about sex, there’s probably a number you should call.) And you don’t even know Beyoncé.

In today’s over-exuberant, clickbait world, we “love” anything that gives us the merest satisfaction, whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual.

To be fair, this isn’t (entirely) our fault. English is a hodge-podge language that didn’t bother to import much depth, relying instead on added descriptive words for emphasis and clarity. Other languages have great words for complicated feelings; for example, “kummerspeck” (German for the weight you gain when you eat because you’re sad) and “ya’arburnee” (Arabic for wanting someone you love to die before you do so you don’t have to live without them).

So what do we do? How do we rediscover the meaning and power of “love”?

One potential remedy is getting familiar with the thesaurus. Browse the options under “love” and sharpen your focus to find the word that describes what you really feel for someone/something. Perhaps “delight in” is better for kitty jellybean toes and “crave” is better for sex and “idolize” is better for Beyoncé. Enlarging one’s vocabulary is never a bad idea.

But that doesn’t quite solve the issue of relationship, does it? We can crave tacos and sex (maybe at the same time), delight in our best friend and our kids. They can both be true, but we intuitively know they aren’t the same. So there must be another layer: a difference in the quality of love rather than its specificity. We need containers for these subtle variations in order to understand what makes us love Grandma differently than God.

This is where C. S. Lewis comes to our rescue. In his book The Four Loves, he sorts these relationships into four categories according to Greek concepts: affection (enjoyment of things, family, animals; acquaintanceship), friendship (close connection that is not familial or sexual), romance (self-explanatory), and divine love (godly love; God’s love for us).

Right away, we can start slotting things from our list into those categories.

Affection: tacos, kitty jellybean toes, thunderstorms, chocolate cake, grandma, our kids, Beyoncé
Friendship: our best friend
Romance: sex
Divine: God

Most of the people, things, animals, places, art that we encounter falls into the “affection” category. We don’t feel the same type of love for tacos as we do for sex because tacos are everyday objects with no ability to engage with us beyond the pleasure of eating; we love family members because they are fellow humans who share our personal story. This affection is the love upon which all other loves are built. Without a baseline appreciation for the goodness in the world and in other people, we can’t experience greater love with friends, partners, or God.

From affection, our love becomes more refined.

In friendship, we lose the forced familiarity of family and gain engagement; friends have shared interests and goals, are good company, and support us in ways our family cannot. While your best friend may feel like a sister, she has a much different role, and so you love her with a different sort of love.

In romance, we add the element of passion to friendship; this is the most common and widely-meant version of “love”–to be in love with someone. It desires to possess a person just for being themselves, making us crave a closeness with them we don’t feel for anyone else.

In divine love, the highest and greatest form of love, we find the impulse to give everything and ask for nothing. It loves the unlovely; it is wholly unnatural to our humanity. This is the kind of love that God has for us, and the kind he inspires in us when we’re close to him. Lavish, self-sacrificing altruism.

As an added bonus, it’s possible to have all four types of love for one person. Ideally, that’d be your spouse, but I’m big enough to admit I’m not there yet.

D’you see?

Once we grasp these categories of love, the English word starts to take back its meaning. Differentiating between our love of thunderstorms and of our spouse extends our linguistic palette, which gives depth to our emotions.

Etymological clarity brings emotional clarity (or: being a word-nerd helps you feel better *rimshot*).

So, back to my annoyance with watering down the most powerful force in all creation. It’s not that we shouldn’t say we “love” kitty jellybean toes. It’s that we need to understand what kind of love that is so we don’t confuse it for something else, which can lead all sorts of awkward and confusing places, for you and for Mr. Freckles.

While the overuse of “love” these days does bug me, I don’t expect everyone to be a walking thesaurus, substituting affection, friendship, romance, and divine love for every mention people, critters, food, and things we feel strongly about. That’d be a little much. All I’m suggesting is that we think about how we love what we love so that we can love it better.

(That being said, I have to admit: I do love me some tacos.)

Extra Credit: If any of this tickles your fancy, here’s 30-minute doodle summary of The Four Loves.

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