Love is arguably the most important word in the English language. After all, love binds us together as couples, families, nations and, ideally, as members of our global community. When love is present, healing and reconciliation can occur. When it is absent, divisiveness and war tear us apart.
Like a diamond, love has many facets, but there is only one word for it in the English language. The word “love” is derived from a Sanskrit word, lubhyati (“desires”), which later became the Latin word libido. In contrast, there are 96 words for love in Sanskrit and 80 in ancient Persian. Ancient Greek had four words for love. A look at them shows us a little of what we’re missing out on by having only one word for our most precious emotions:
- Storge roughly translates as familial love
- Philia means friendship
- Eros is sexual or romantic love and desire
- Agape is divine love and is associated with another Greek word, kenosis or “emptiness.”
Of course, we get around having just one word for love by using it with adjectives or understanding it within the context of a sentence. When we’re talking about love of family, we might add the adjective “familial.” When one tough guy in a movie says, “I love you, man” to another tough guy who just saved his life, we understand he’s really saying, “I philia you, man” (or something like that!). Oddly enough, when it comes to romantic love, we usually save the words “I love you” until we’ve gone past the stage of physical attraction, even though love is derived from words that literally mean sexual desire or attraction.
After noting that the Eskimos have 30 words for snow, Jungian analyst Robert Johnson writes in his book, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden:
“If we had a vocabulary of thirty words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart. An Eskimo probably would die of clumsiness if he had only one word for snow; we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love.” (source: http://www.lorinroche.com/word/word/love.html)
In almost every context we use it, “love” has an object. We love our dog, our spouse, our children or even God, but we don’t seem to have a word for a love that doesn’t require an object or long for love in return. The Greek agape is that kind of word, but the only approximations we have in English are words like compassion, spiritual love or altruism. They help, but still don’t quite match agape.
Johnson mentioned the absence of a word for this kind of love in our vocabulary because what is lacking in a language is often what’s lacking in a society as a whole. As a psychoanalyst, he wanted his patients to discover the healing power of love. Perhaps what we need to do is not make up another word for love, but redefine the word we have and understand that love is the force behind every good and life-affirming action we take, from giving a child a hug to saving the planet.