How many words are there in the Inuit language, really, for snow? The myth is something like 400. But no, really there are no more terms than in English. [reference] It is a fond fancy that words separate things in degrees of sophistication, thus we evolve from ‘ug’ to: ‘that is very gracious of you, indeed generous, and I am grateful to avail myself of your munificence’ because we need to know what ‘ug’ really means. Maybe it’s the gruff acknowledgement of a morning cup of tea before we’re ready to be awake, maybe it’s the careful response to something that seems too good to be true, or the only thing a person can say after rescue from a fallen building. It needs interpreatation.
The state of snow does matter. Maybe not to me, but if I lived in it and with it all the time and my life depended on it, I would want to say a bit more than ‘it’s snowing!’. Words can over-prescribe, and words can lead us astray.
Words for love
It is as well known that in the New Testament, in the common Greek language of the time, there are four words for ‘love’. C S Lewis wrote a book in 1960 called The Four Loves, with his own Christian perspective on this, though of course they are not religious words in any sense, it’s just where most of us might come up against koine (common) Greek of the time. Are these any different from words we use, that are not translated into just one word in another language? The four terms are:
- storge (pr. stor-gay), described as affection or fondness
- philia, familial or friendship
- eros, from which we derive erotic, including romance
- agape (pr. a-ga-pay), meaning unconditional love
These are nouns, names for love relationships. Where are the verbs? That is where the problems begin linguistically.
We, in modern English, of course understate our love, because we fear to imply too much. ‘I love these biscuits’ is not the same as looking into another’s eyes and saying ‘I love you’. And when we make vows in marriage or promises in partnership, we do not mean unconditional love, any more than having sex because you both want it means a lifelong commitment! We have friends to whom we sign ‘love’ in an email, but are even cautious saying it out loud to a sibling. And there is as much power in saying the opposite. ‘I don’t love these biscuits’ means not terribly fond of them. But to say ‘I don’t love you’ is a warning, an assertion of a not-feeling. Thus to stop saying ‘I love you’ is a withdrawal that can leave just as powerful a message, and can say too much.
And so it is that the word ‘love’ can mean anything or nothing, and we are afraid to use it, and when we do, afraid it means something different to the receiver, inviting something we do not want. Why are we afraid of the meanings of love? Are they as simple as four Greek roots? Do the words dictate what we can say or do or mean? Are they mutually exclusive terms? Of course not. I was musing on love described by analogy rather than semantics. What if we describe love of people differently (leaving biscuits out of it for a moment):
- bread and water love: basic sustenance that keeps someone alive. We give it a lot, in many ways.
- sugar love: high energy, fast-acting, exciting and with short effect. We give it in the moment, but don’t store it for long.
- bagel love: we put a comforting ring around another and feed them, but we avoid the centre. Some personal space is reserved, but we recognise it is there.
- muesli love: everything is in here, richness, variety, lasting nourishment, commitment to digesting it, and yet energy too. In a way it includes all the others.
Maybe you can think of more. But by analogies we avoid the false attachments of what we give to family, casual friends, ‘lovers’ and life partners. It also dissociates love from mode. You don’t have to see ‘sex’ in ‘eros’, or ‘tendencies’ in ‘~philia’.
Hung up on love
Love grows and love changes. We may start by offering bread and water, and see it develop into bagel love for a lifetime. We may be bagel people who comfort passing friends frequently and freely. Sugar love may be great to begin with and become less important as time goes by. Maybe your kind of muesli isn’t as sweet as mine, or needs a particular balance of fruit and nuts. For many people, what started with sugar love grows and matures into muesli love. Or bread and water starts to feel better with jam, or bagels that never connect with the middle become too inadequate an offering.
If you gave me four boxes, each containing one of those first Greek loves, and asked me to choose, I would want more than one from anyone who really shared my life deeply. If you countered my choice by saying, ‘Oh, sorry, I meant to say, girls can’t have that one’ I would feel hurt. Similarly, if one day you turned up with a choice of one instead of all, I would feel quite rejected: why stop saying you love me if you don’t mean something very significant? Well, we have all broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and this is what happens. Un-loving someone hurts, even at the bread and jam stage.
But if we thought of the analogies instead, would we explain ourselves better? If my muesli love, developed after many years through commitment and deep giving, had fewer nuts, that might be a better option than being downgraded to bagel love, whatever the filling. And by dissociating love from sex, might enable different kinds of intimacy, free from the guilt of our mental and social conditioning. Taking muesli off the shelf because it has ‘the wrong kind of nuts’ is a very radical thing to do, and bagels do leave a big hole in the middle.
Yes, my discussion is quite transparent, because it affects so many couples with long partnerships, where one has gender dysphoria. Their love may have become very rich over time, but because the gender nuts in the muesli love are wrong, over-dependency on sex-difference forces the whole pack from the shelf. Muesli love enables you, or empowers you, to say ‘I love you’. Bagel love is very cautious. ‘Love’ implies too much, and ‘I love you’ is withdrawn. ‘We can still be friends’ has been uttered so many times by girls and boys trying to break up nicely, and we all know it can be true; but really it means bread and water for you from now on.
It isn’t an argument or a persuasion, it is just what I experience in becoming forbidden to love and show love with muesli. I understand completely that being revealed as female means I would never have been chosen that way. My role was husband, it’s just that no-one noticed I was running in girls’ shoes. But I was chosen and, I hoped, chosen for myself, not just my nuts. The muesli love has been good. Why is it now so bad, having had decades to prove its value? Is it because a box marked ‘eros’ is forbidden between females? Why is it so feared or disliked? Did I not do eros sincerely? Why are the nuts now so bitter just because their true colour is revealed?
Most of us never have to face this. Life is simple when boys are boys and girls are girls, and eros has a very particular place. It becomes a base for intimacy, it becomes synonymous. For those of us in a less simplistic place, eros takes intimacy with it, muesli is off the shelf, and we are in a very lonely place – often for the rest of our lives. I just want love to be rich, unbound by the ‘serving suggestion’ on the outside that says it should be taken a particular way. I don’t want it to be all or nothing, based on my bits. I don’t want to throw away something very good, tested, proven over half a lifetime and sustaining, just because ‘I’m not the kind of girl who does that’. I want love not to be about sex, but about trust and vulnerability, where touch is genuine expression, not invasion of privacy, where the next kiss after ten thousand is meant and received the same as it always was. I want love to be something treasured because of what it has come to mean, because it is mature and rich. I want muesli, not two out of four boxes of Greek love. I want to be loved for myself, not my nuts.
And I want to be able to offer my bowl of muesli as welcome nourishment too, not to find it is always ‘the wrong sort’.
- See also: The long and the short of love