What is love?

As a species, we really want to know the answer to this question. Chances are, you can think of at least one song with that question in the lyrics. Bonus points if you aren't saying, "Baby don't hurt me" right now, like I am. I do like that song though.

In fact, lyrics.com tells me, "We've found 455,192 lyrics, 200 artists, and 50 albums matching what is love." That's a lot. How many songs answer the question though? Lyrics.com couldn't help me. I searched for "love is" and got the response, "We couldn't find any lyrics matching your query."

Don't despair. Despite the considerable imbalance between the question and the answer in song lyrics, there is an answer.  Let's throw a few shovelfuls of knowledge into this gaping hole of collective understanding. Also, using the word "imbalance" in this case is such an understatement it's like trying to divide by zero.

Let's start with a dictionary definition. Oxford's first entry starts out:

A feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone, typically arising from a recognition of attractive qualities, from natural affinity, or from sympathy and manifesting itself in concern for the other's welfare and pleasure in his or her presence.

Let's take a closer look at this definition. First, it can be a feeling or a disposition. It's good to separate the two here. One relates to emotion and the other is tied to behavior. While popular songs often focus on the feeling, we'll be looking more closely at the behaviors than have to do with love.

Still working from this definition, we see that love arises from different things. It could be based on the surface: attraction or affinity. Or it can go deeper and contain a sincere concern for the welfare of the recipient.

That's just one definition, based on one English word. In fact, the English word love covers such a broad range of meaning that analyzing the word itself won't get us very far. What if we look at more specific words for love in other languages? That's what Tim Lomas, Lecturer in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London, did. He started by searching the world’s languages for words relating to love that don’t exist in English. He searched for related words in "only" 50 languages, which is really a pretty good start. Then he made a thematic analysis, in the end grouping them into 14 "flavours". You can read the full report here.

I admit this really piqued my interest. When I set out to write an article on this topic, I was hoping to find such a study since I don't have time to analyze 50 languages and do a thematic analysis on over 1,000 words. But I did have time to analyze the "14 flavours" he came up with, and I decided that some of the categories could be further condensed, or in the case of some, removed. I consider these to be the results of love rather than types of love. For example, he views participatory consciousness in a group dynamic and the reverential devotion of religious believers to be two of the flavors, whereas I hold these to be results of love for a deity/object of devotion rather than forms of love. But enough of my analysis.

When I finished rearranging the 14 flavors I came up with a smaller list that had no conflicts with the mental list I started with before I set out to write this article. I've studied and thought about love many, many times over the years so the general categories weren't new to me.  But I did discover a few levels of nuance that I hadn't considered before. Here's the list of categories I started with and the number of Lomas' flavors that correspond to each:

Love for things 3 flavors
Love for family 1 flavor
Love for friends 1 flavor
Love for self 1 flavor
Romantic love 5 flavors
Selfless, “transcendent” love 3 flavors

The languages with the most words for love, if a brief internet search can be trusted, are Sanskrit with nearly 100 and Tamil with approximately half as many. I was fascinated by the nuance of these lexicons, but at least initially I concluded that there is a great deal of overlap in these words. While each word has its own shade of meaning it's hard to use these highly nuanced languages to construct a useful taxonomy of meanings of "love". Incidentally, at least two words which mean love in Tamil have the root meaning of "moisture" (ram ஈரம்), and "melting" (uruku உருகு) . Food for thought, but not useful for my purpose.

The language that Lomas, and others before him, chose to help with the categorization of love-related concepts is Greek. This comes as no surprise to me since Greek words for love tend to have very specific applications. What surprised me was learning several Greek words relating to love that I'd never heard before. Without further delay, let's get into these, along with related words from other languages.

Love for things

Meraki

"Labor of love." When you put something of yourself into your work.

Eros

Love for objects. While you might recognize this word as primarily associated with romantic love, in classical Greek "it was often used in the context of aesthetic appreciation rather than romance."

Lomas includes the idea of "love for a place" in his 14 flavors, and while that concept rounds this category out well, there isn't a Greek word that embodies this exact concept.

  • Some examples in other languages of love for things include:
  • Kissing the back of the fist in sign language to show love for an action or object
  • The Spanish word encantar embodies virtually the same meaning. It comes from a root meaning to sing. Think of the English word enchanted.
  • Like the Greek Eros, The Sanskrit रति (Rati) originally meant to take delight in someone or something but has evolved to encompass physical desire.
  • Also see Epithymia below.

Love for family

Storge

This is a love built upon acceptance and deep emotional connection, a fondness born out of familiarity or dependency. It is less contingent on personal qualities. Think of the love a parent has for her child. It is not dependent on reciprocation. However, this love can grow over time. Shared experiences and memories help to strengthen this kind of love.

  • The Arabic word يقبرني (ya'aburnee) literally translates to "you bury me." The implication is the parent wishes for the child to outlive them.
  • A form of storge appears twice in the Greek New Testament, both times indicating situations where people would lack "natural affection". Romans 1:31; 2 Timothy 3:3

Love for friends

Philia

Commonly translated "brotherly love", this is a (usually) non-romantic bond between friends or family members. It grows as individuals spend time together and appreciate one another's qualities and shared values.

  • This word is signed by crossing your arms over your chest and “hugging” yourself.
  • Irish, which like Greek has highly descriptive words for love, includes cumann which expresses the love and companionship that exists between friends.
  • The basic meaning of the Tamil பாசம் (Pachm) is to draw together the parts of with a knotted string. By extension it means a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection.

Love for self

Philautia

A certain amount of self-love, which is closely related to self-esteem, is healthy. Like most other forms of love it involves an element of compassion. A person demonstrates healthy self-love by taking care of their own needs properly and setting wholesome boundaries. They demonstrate resilience by accepting themselves and others and using effective strategies to deal with challenges. Unhealthy self-love includes self-pity, narcissism, and hubris. Perhaps more than any other, this form of love requires moderation.

This word appears once in the Bible, prophetically describing a period of time when love of self and love of money would dominate.Timothy 3:2

Romantic love

Like the number of songs centering on this type of love, there are many nuances in language surrounding it. Let's start with the Greek words.

Eros

The root of "erotic", this word is well-known to many English speakers. This is a purely physical love. It "burns hot", but due to the psychological nature of human physical attraction, this love on its own does not lead to lasting relationships. In fact one may indulge in this kind of love for a partner while simultaneously suspecting the other only sees them as an object for gratification. No wonder so many relationships start off so intensely and end so quickly.

Mania

As its name suggests, this is obsessive, unbalanced love. It frequently involves individuals with low philautia (self-esteem) who see in the love of a partner a way to obtain what they are desperately lacking in themselves. It leads to an obsessive feeling of need for the other and often manifests itself in jealousy, codependency, and outrageous behaviors. Ways to deal with this unhealthy form of love include increasing one's self-esteem, learning to trust, and realizing that no partner can provide everything we need in life.

Ludus

This one is new to me, at least, I don't remember hearing about it before. It comes from a word meaning to play a game. Imagine a person "hitting on" someone of the opposite sex, literally or figuratively. This is the fun, flirty, side of love, the dark side of which can include conquest. It's being "twitterpated." It's related to eros and mania in that it requires little effort or commitment. This kind of love exerts chemical effects on the brain similar to cocaine. It's usually an intoxicating first step in a new relationship but when judiciously sprinkled on an already mature relationship (see pragma) it can be rewarding.

Epithymia

This word has the basic meaning of "strong desire" but is often fittingly translated "lust". Its connection with romantic love is obvious. It can be healthy but it frequently reflects the baser instincts. It doesn't really translate as "love" at all, but I include it here because it's one of Lomas' 14 flavors, and because it is very closely related to romantic love.

Pragma

Another new word on my list of Greek love words, this one adds maturity to romantic love. Oddly, Lomas doesn't mention this one, but I've found it on many lists of "types of love" online. Many are numbered listicles, ranging from 4 to 8 types. Pragma is closely related to storge, because a mature romantic relationship gradually becomes well-entwined. Like a well-tended tree or garden or a bottle of fine wine, this kind of love gets better and stronger with time. Due in large part to ignorance about how love works, few relationships make it to this stage. Picture an old married couple hand-in-hand, or Tevye asking Golda "Do you love me?" in Fiddler on the Roof. (Haven't seen it? By all means, add it to your queue!) Common goals and values support this love, while imbalances of power or labor can cause a strain. This love has well been described as “standing in love” vs "falling in love". Too bad more songs don't glorify this rare, exquisite type of union.

  • No list of other language words would be complete without काम (Kama), the Sanskrit word for erotic or amorous love. You might recognize this word from the title of the famous ancient text, the Kama Sutra.
  • अनुरक्ति (Anurakti) means passionate love.
  • While Tamil kātal (காதல்) is most common word used for the love between man and woman, in can represent love in other contexts as well.
  • On the other hand காதல் (Katl) is reserved for expressing romantic love.
  • The Spanish word for love in general is querer, with amar being used only in a serious, romantic context.
  • In Arabic, عشق(‘Ishq) derives from a word for "vine" and indicates love has begun to take root.
  • شغف(Shaghaf) describes lust, or being "madly in love."
  • The Irish word searc is used for describing romantic love or “true love”.

Selfless, “transcendent” love

Agape

Agape is universal love, such as the love for strangers, nature, or God. Like storge, it doesn't depend on reciprocation, but unlike storge, it usually involves those outside one's family or close friends. This, and not romantic love, is the "love that makes the world go round." Or at least, it should be. Agape is altruistic and seeks the welfare of others without regard to one's own benefit. Of course one must balance the desire to do good to others with making sure one's own needs are met. You might agree with me that the balance in society right now between love for self and pure altruism is way off. Our world is suffering as a result.

I can think of no better words to describe agape than these, written nearly 2000 years ago:

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn't jealous. It doesn't sing its own praises. It isn't arrogant. It isn't rude. It doesn't think about itself. It isn't irritable. It doesn't keep track of wrongs. It isn't happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up.

Love never comes to an end.1 Corinthians 13:4-8, Good News translation

In keeping with the theme of this website, I can't think of anything with a brighter outlook than true love, and those who practice it.