Growing up, my dad often expressed frustration over my frequent use of the word “love.” Dropping off a playmate, I would shout “love you” before the car door slammed and she ran into her house. A quiet dispute would ensue.
Around age 11, I equated his love-objections to his distaste for the phrase “duh” and confusion over the meaning of “random” (as in “that girl’s outfit is so random”). I loved my collections of “Got Milk?” ads and the Lisa Frank folder they lived in. I loved my jelly sandals. And I definitely loved what’s-her-name. Parents just didn’t understand.
Looking back, however, the subtext of Dad’s nagging seemed to be, “No, you don’t love the classmate you will probably lose touch with by high school. You love me.”
With Valentine’s Day less than a week away, campus is littered with references to the L-word. A sandwich board outside New Deck Tavern advertises drinks such as a “Twisted Love” and some sort of love potion. Nearby, the Penn Book Center has a display of books on the topic — these include works of poetry and fiction, science and self-help.
Just as confused about the expression as I was a decade ago, I decided to take a closer look at the way the word love figures into typical Penn life.
We are constantly surrounded by these semantic questions. Each day, thousands of students hurry passed Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” at 36th and Locust Walk. Visitors often pause for a photo with the iconic sculpture. Cast in aluminum in 1966, the piece was based on a Christmas card Indiana designed a year earlier for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was installed on campus in 1999 and another cast of the work resides in Center City’s Love Park.
MoMA.org explains Indiana was fascinated by “the power of ordinary words.” The museum describes the design as, “Full of erotic, religious, autobiographical, and political underpinnings — especially when it was co-opted as an emblem of 1960s idealism — LOVE is both accessible and complex in meaning.”
While the stencil-like letters have become a recognizable symbol of Philadelphia (the City of Brotherly Love), it is unlikely that many passers-by spend much time considering their deeper meaning. The careful composition with its four stacked letters — three straight, one tilted — has been appropriated to words like “VOTE” and “BEER.” The design, as a result, has become independent from the word.
MoMA’s interpretation of the statue as having multiple meanings could easily be applied to love as a theoretical notion as well. Love is both a noun and a verb — both word types have multiple applications within them. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the modern word comes from the Old English lufu a term with Germanic origins as well as connections to the word for ‘desires’ in Sanskrit lubhyati.
In 2009 the website Big Think compiled a series of videos that asked, “What is love?” Famed 1949 Penn trained linguist Noam Chomsky said, “I just know it … has an unbreakable grip. But I can’t tell you what it is. Just life’s empty without it.”
Anthropologist call words and ideas whose significance is taken for granted doxas. Often the assumptions that stem from a doxa can stifle progress. In this case it makes us throw the word love around haphazardly, rarely stopping to think about what it means.
When I recently asked my dad why he used to get so irritated, he said, “I think love is a very strong word and should be saved for those who you really do love.” He equated its overuse to the way athletes are described as “the best” or “the greatest ever.” All such claims can’t be true.
“I really love a select group of people,” he said. Adding, “if you really do love someone it is nice to tell them often. Life is hard, stressful and it feels good to know that someone really does love you.”
As it turns out, I now think my dad had it right all along. If love is so complex that even Chomsky can’t quite pin down its meaning, it should be said selectively — but often.
Today, love is a term I try to save for family, my closest friends and that elusive romance. So if you have any doubt that I love you, you are probably right.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is email@example.com. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.