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Why English is the Best Language to Talk About “Love”

February 14, AD 2015 2 Comments

I’m sure you’ve heard it. Your Spanish or French or German speaking friends have mentioned that English is just lacking when it comes to “love.”

Maybe you heard in a homily or a talk at a retreat all about the top three Greek words for love (philia, agape, eros), or the seemingly endless list of Latin terms that can all be translated by one of English’s most ambiguous four-letter-words.

But I think English has it right.

You see, some languages distinguish between the love among friends and the love between lovers, the love among boyfriend-girlfriend and between husband-wife, the love among parents and child and the love between siblings. Some languages distinguish between loving a latte and loving a dog, loving a new song you heard on the radio and loving your job, or between loving someone a little bit and loving someone a whole lot.

Some languages use different words for loving an inferior versus a superior. There are specific terms for lust-love, desire-love, respect-love, or comfort-love.

In English, we just have love.

When we say or hear or think that God is Love, we are open to thinking of God’s love-ness in any and all of these aspects of love: the exciting, first-flush new love that you feel in your first-ever kiss; the comfortable, quiet love you feel when petting your dog after a really long day; the laughing, joyous love of sharing a meal with friends; the hard, painful love of forgiving someone who has hurt you; the enormous, difficult, wonderful love of living out your vocation every hour, on good days and on bad days; the love that wants more and more (chocolate or sex or snow-days or whatever); the love that wants nothing but to be.

Love is a feeling, a choice, and a virtue. Love is an indivisible divine reality.

When I tell my husband: “I love you,” there are some days I mean it with all the gushing exuberance I felt when we were dating and it seemed like he could do no wrong. Some days when I tell him “I love you” I mean, today I do not like you very much, but I choose to love you because I have been strengthened by the Sacrament of Marriage to stand by you even in bad times.

When I tell my infant son: “I love you,” I mean something that cannot be captured by any words but those three.

I like that English provides an ambiguity to this whole love-thing. I imagine it would be cold comfort for my husband if on those days when I don’t like him very much I might choose to say, “I obligation-love you” or, “I only-sorta-love you.”

God is in every kind of love, and every kind of love is related, because all of them point back to God: the fun, exuberant, warm-and-fuzzy feelings kind of love is just as much about God as the hard, painful, choosing-to-suffer kind of love.

English reminds us that all love, the difficult and the easy, the fun and the painful, is possible through God and ordered to the glory of God.

We English-speakers can (and should!) say every day, no matter what, “God, I love you.” Every day it will mean something a little different, but every day it will be true.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day, husband, I love you!
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, son, I love you!
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, God, I love you!

About the Author:

After growing up near Kennett Square, PA, the Mushroom Capitol of the World, Siobhan knew she would always live in a bustling capitol city. She earned a B.A. in Theology, History, and Classics at Mount St. Mary's University and an M.A. in Theology (specializing in Systematics) at Villanova University. Now she lives in Washington, D.C. with her wonderful husband where she is still getting used to living with a boy, right down to playing video games and watching football. When she's not hanging out with him or reading novels, she uses her spare time to earn a PhD in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America.
  • james

    Very nicely done. Then, according to Robert Frost, there’s a distinction between
    gender love – ” You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You do have to
    deserve your father’s. He’s more particular.”

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