Why Love is Intentionally Vague

The best two paragraphs I read today via Robin Hanson:

Our relations with each other are very important to us, and they vary in a great many important ways.  Why then do we use the word "love" so often to describe our relations, as in the famous three words "I love you."  Why not instead use a variety of more precise words that convey more detailed meaning?  Why not say "I wistfully-romantically-heart you" or "I hopefully-lustfully-want you" or "I wearily-unwillingly-stick-to you"? 

The answer comes, I think from realizing that if we described our relations in more detail, we would have to acknowledge finer changes in our relations.  Our current "I love you" approach lets us use the same descriptor at all stages in our relation, and at all points in our mood cycles.  We don't have to announce when our relation moves from hopeful lust to wild passion to tender comfort to favorite-old-shirt familiarity.  Such announcements could be quite awkward, especially if our perceptions are not exactly in sync.

Very true. Robin asks for other examples of vague words and what would go wrong if we used more precise concepts.

9 Responses to Why Love is Intentionally Vague

  1. Jude says:

    I have two new friends at work. We’ve known each other for half a school year. The other day we ended up in the mail room together and Lynn asked, “How are my two favorite people in the world?” I said, “Don’t you mean your two favorite people in the room?” She’s known us for two months, so how could we be her two favorite people in the world? I do love both of them–the male and the female (and oh, yeah, I lust after the male, not that I’m likely to tell him since he’s half my age). At the moment, they’re probably two of my favorite people in the world, but I’m not sure what that means for a social phobic.

  2. Lisa L says:

    I hear that this is partly a failure of the English language, and that other languages (in my friend’s example, Hindi and Urdu) have many more nuanced concepts of love expressed in single, separate, words.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Maybe, but my understanding is this is largely a myth. You often hear, for
    example, that Eskimos have like 10 words for “grey” (different shades). Not
    true.

  4. albatross says:

    I suspect one source of the vagueness is not wanting to fully acknowledge or define the feelings to yourself. “I am infatuated and filled with lust for you” may very well be true in many case, but expressing it isn’t necessarily all that conducive to convincing the other person, and doesn’t make for great poetry or drama, either.

    “Know” and “believe” are other examples of this intentional vagueness. I “know” there are an infinite number of primes, I “know” that nothing can travel faster than light, I “know” that HIV causes AIDS, I “know” that my wife is faithful to me, I “know” liberal democracies are the best form of government on Earth, etc. No two of those mean quite the same thing. And that ambiguity is often intentional, either in confusing people you’re speaking with or in confusing yourself.

  5. Krishna says:

    Coming to think of love, I guess the first few who ever experienced it would sure have had a different conjecture than it is today. Now that it just means the first feeling you get on her before all the bad stuff gets in the way. She puts on perfume and he some shaving cologne before they go out smelling each other. Both go out to eat and you end up taking all of her french fries without giving her any of yours.

    To some it’s the oldest running myth, a fiction created by people to keep them from jumping out of windows or a dirty trick played on us to run with the species. To others it’s just another word to talk her out of the fine shirt she wears for the night or just being wistful about using thighs as earmuffs. Still he asks her for a band-aid to dress the scraped knee while falling for her when in fact it really means he can’t wait to move in with her with a credit card debt over a failed mortgage that he can’t possibly handle alone.

    All else is true feelings expressed. Love, badly needs some serious overhauling :-)

  6. Shefaly says:

    Ben, I am a native speaker of Hindi which overlaps greatly with Urdu. Lisa L is right. Many precise words exist in both languages to express different kinds of love and different intensities and so on.

    On the rest: ‘love’ is intentionally vague or perhaps it is intentionally ‘broad’ so as to cover various situations. It is also a commitment, no matter what, to support a person, to be his/ her champion/ sounding board/ confidant(e)/ friend/ whatever.

    Only a fortunate few experience complete synchronicity of such commitment. May be because they do not spend time dissecting various stages threadbare :-) Just a thought.

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Totally agree Shefaly that it’s rare to have complete synchronicity of
    commitment hence the nice vagueness of the term.

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