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Jack Smith

Throughout the ages, the lexicographical dilemma has remained: What is this thing called love?

March 12, 1985|JACK SMITH

Trying to define the word love , I said the other day, could be more fun than Trivial Pursuit.

Now Auriel Douglas, who happens to be writing a book on love, sends evidence that the word has been a trial for English lexicographers since dictionaries came into being.

Ms. Douglas has been researching her book at the UCLA Research Library, that great and vastly underappreciated treasury of ours.

So all-encompassing is the UCLA Library, in fact, so thorough in its collecting zeal, that it has saved for posterity all the old files of the late Los Angeles Daily News, in which appear, among countless other works of journalistic art, the complete series of news stories I wrote on the notorious Black Dahlia murder case, from the morning her nude body was found, severed at the waist, until the public finally wearied of its tawdry fascination.

Ms. Douglas has consulted all the ancient dictionaries at the library, and found out that few of them saw love in quite the same way.

"Those poor souls who worked on The Ladies Dictionary (printed in 1694) were obviously completely at a loss," she says. "They wrote:

" ' 'Tis very much like light, a thing that everybody knows, and yet no one can tell what to make of it. . . . 'Tis not money, flouncing, searing, fortune, jointure, raving, stabbing, hanging, romancing, ramping, desiring, fighting, dicing, though all these have been, are and still will be mistaken and miscalled for it. . . . 'Tis extremely like a sigh and could we find a painter who could draw one, you'd easily mistake it for the other. . . .' "

In 1676, she notes, the Lingua Britanica Reformata avoided the problem by not including the word at all. In 1702 John Kersey in his Dicionairium Anglo-Brittanicum defined love as amity, affection, kindness. In 1755 Nathaniel Bailey in his Universal Etymological English Dictionary defined it as "kindness, friendship, a passion of the soul."

James Buchanan in Linguae Brittanica Vera Pronunciato, or A New English Dictionary, was the first to mention sex, defining love as "a tender friendship for a person of the opposite sex."

In 1758 the Rev. Thomas Dyke, in A General English Dictionary, broadened it, stating that love was "to have a tender and compassionate regard for, or an earnest and longing desire after anything."

Twenty years after he had defined it as "a passion of the soul," Mr. Bailey injected a moralistic tone into his revised definition, with this: "Love is a friendly motion to mankind; but the moralists tell us, must not be thrown away on an ill object, nor procure based and unworthy fuel to its flames, nor hinder the exercise of other duties."

Had the moralists' advice been followed, half the love stories in our literature would never have been written.

A more modern definition came in 1775 from John Ash, in The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language: "Love. to regard with tenderness or affection; to regard with respect and reverence; to like, to take pleasure in."

Samuel Johnson himself, the great lexicographer, abdicated the responsibility of defining the word, instead citing the definitions of others (Pope: "the passions between the sexes"; Cowley, "Kindness, goodwill, friendship.")

By 1895, Ms. Douglas notes, people "were getting a grasp on themselves," and the definitions improved. Webster's Academic Dictionary defined love as "strong attachment; devotion to another; tenderness."

James Stormonth in Stormonth's English Dictionary (1890) defined it as "an affection of the mind excited by qualities in an object which are capable of communicating pleasure," a definition that seems to me to have reduced love to the merely sensual.

In 1911 sex showed up again in Webster's New Illustrated Dictionary: "A strong feeling of affection especially to one of the opposite sex."

In 1913 Webster's Secondary School Dictionary defined it as "a feeling of strong personal attachment; ardent affection (also) desire for, and earnest effort to promote the welfare of another."

(Thus enters unselfish love.)

In 1938 Nuttall's Popular Dictionary of the English Language defined it as "an affectionate devoted attachment, especially that passionate all-absorbing form of it when the object is one of the opposite sex."

That brings us to the present, and Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961): "Love. The attraction, desire, or affection felt for a person who arouses delight or admiration or elicits tenderness, sympathetic interest or benevolence."

And none of them, as you can see, if you have ever been in love, even begins to define the feeling.

But perhaps that's as close as we can get, without falling into "love is when . . . ," which introduces not a definition, but a symptom of the condition: Love is when you think of someone every minute of the day.

Vance Geier suggests a definition by writer-psychiatrist M. Scott Peck: "Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."

Right off the bat we know that love is not the will to do anything, though the feeling can generate a great deal of will.

Also, it rings a little of psychobabble. How does one will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's spiritual growth?

Maybe we can't really get any closer to it than this, from Ruth Tubbs of Upland:

"Love is a feeling you feel when you feel you feel a feeling you've never felt before."

I wish Richard Rodgers could put that to music.

Come to think of it, the Ladies Dictionary wasn't far off the mark, back there in 1694:

" 'Tis very much like light . . . and extremely like a sigh. . . ."

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