The Word Love is NOT Overused: Semantic Change

It is not rare to come across someone bemoaning the ‘overuse’ of the word ‘love’ and that fact that English only has one word for ‘love.’ People say things like:

“Love” is probably the most overused word in the English [sic] language. We teach our children not to say “hate” because it’s such a strong word, but we never teach them not to overuse “love” until it’s lost all meaning.

Or

If we stopped for a moment and honestly thought about the insanity of placing this word [love] before all of our topics, it might make it clear to us why we shouldn’t dilute it’s validity

What people that bemoan the ‘weakening’ and ‘overuse’ of the word ‘love’ fail to recognise, is that this sort of thing happens constantly in language. In fact, it is an important part of historical linguistics, called semantic change. Over time the meaning of words change and evolve. Take the word ‘awesome’ for example. It originally meant ‘something that inspired awe,’ but through semantic change (specifically a type called ‘hyperbole’) it is now a rather generic term for anything that is/was ‘extremely good.’ The word ‘nice’ underwent a change (known as ‘amelioration’) from meaning ‘foolish or stupid’ to what it means today. The opposite (pejoration) happened to the word ‘silly,’ which came from the Old English ‘sælig’ meaning ‘blessed, blissful’ changed to ‘sely’ meaning ‘happy, innocent, pitiable,’ in Middle English and finally its meaning changed to the meaning it has today of ‘foolish.’

Similarly, there is a process called ‘widening’ that happens to many words. For example, the English word ‘dog’ originally meant ‘a (specific) powerful breed of dog,’ and then was generalised (widened) to mean any breed of dog. The Spanish word ‘pájaro’ which means ‘bird’ comes from the Latin word ‘passer‘ which meant ‘sparrow.’  Just as meaning can become more or less positive, meanings can both widen and narrow.

The word ‘meat’ originally meant ‘food’ in general but narrowed into the meaning it has today. The word ‘wife’ originally meant ‘woman’ but then narrowed into its current meaning. The French word ‘drapeau’ meaning ‘flag’ originally meant ‘the piece of cloth fastened to a staff.’ Another type of shift is that of metaphor. For example the slang meaning of the English word ‘chill’ comes from the metaphorical extension from the original meaning of ‘to cool.’ There are other types of semantic shift, but those given should serve to drive the point home: shift happens.

The word ‘love’ is undergoing semantic shift and no amount of moaning, crying, or protesting is going to halt the shift. It is undergoing widening  and, perhaps, hyperbole. Now to the other claim that ‘English only has one word for love.’

Many people that bemoan that unstoppable semantic shift of the word ‘love’ also claim that English only has one word for love. Whereas, ‘Sanskrit has 96,’ ‘Persian has 80,’ ‘Greek has three,’ etc. etc. Apparently people do not know that thesauruses exist and that English has numerous words for love. From the OED:

[Noun] 1 deep affection, fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, attachment, endearment;
devotion, adoration, doting, idolization, worship;
passion, ardour, desire, lust, yearning, infatuation, adulation, besottedness
[Verb] 1 be in love with, be infatuated with, be smitten with, be besotted with, be passionate about; care very much for, feel deep affection for, hold very dear, adore, think the world of, be devoted to, dote on, cherish, worship, idolize, treasure, prize {informal} be mad/crazy/nuts/wild/potty about, have a pash on, carry a torch for,
2 like very much, delight in, enjoy greatly, have a passion for, take great pleasure in, derive great pleasure from, have a great liking for, be addicted to, relish, savour; have a weakness for, be partial to, have a soft spot for, have a taste for, be taken with, have a predilection for, have a proclivity for, have a penchant for {informal} get a kick from/out of, have a thing about/for, be mad for/about, be crazy/nuts/wild/potty about, be hooked on, go a bundle on, get off on, get a buzz from/out of
English does not have only one word for ‘love,’ of course each synonym has a slightly different meaning that ‘love,’ but the 96 Sanskrit words each have slightly different meanings, as do the 80 Persian words, the three Greek words, and the x-number of words that x-language has for love.

Sources:

Campbell, L. (2004). “Semantic Change and Lexical Change” [pp. 252 – 282]. Historical Linguistics: An Introduction.
Corrente, S. (2010). “Love… The Most Overused Word.” Examiner.com Retrieved from http://www.examiner.com/article/love-the-most-overused-word
N.A. (2014) “Love is probably the most overused word in the English language.” Board of Wisdom. Retrieved from http://boardofwisdom.com/togo/Quotes/ShowQuote?msgid=469954#.Vd5eUSjtmko
Oxford Dictionaries Editorial Staff (2015). “Love.” Oxford Dictionaries: Synonyms. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english-thesaurus/love#love__12
Paul, S. (2012). “96 Words for Love.” Huff Post: The Blog. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sheryl-paul/96-words-for-love_b_1644658.html
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