What Love Meant in 4500 B.C.

The Copper Age nomads on the Eurasian steppes might have understood the Beatles.

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The Atlantic

What is love? Reader, don’t hurt me. Just etymologically. I’ll try.

It may be the slipperiest word in the English language. We are constantly asserting its meaning and renegotiating its definition, especially in pop culture. Is it all you need? Is it a many-splendored thing? Does it mean never having to say you’re sorry? Is it a game or is it a battlefield? Is it more like a butterfly or a rodeo? Is it blindness or is it, itself, blind? Is it rage? Is it the drug? Is it patient and kind? Or is it just itself into infinity? Often defined but its true meaning rarely agreed upon, love might seem like a lexicographer’s nightmare. How can a word like love even have a definition if it means so many contradictory things to so many different people?

Love’s roots run deep, etymologically speaking. Linguists trace its origins all the way back to Proto-Indo-European (PIE), a reconstructed hypothetical language spoken as early as 4500 B.C. that eventually evolved into the Romance languages, Russian, Hindustani, and many others. The PIE root leubh-, meaning “to care, to desire, to love,” also gave us belief, libido, and leave. But, in a fantastic etymological anomaly, even as this root word split and evolved through various cultures and languages over the next 6,500 years, from the Sanskrit lubhyati to the Russian ljubit, its core meaning remained the same. A strong, heavy attachment to the unspeakable essence of human experience anchored the phonetic sounds of *leubh- across continents, through massive technological and political revolutions, all the way to the present. This means that if you could travel back in time and play the opening to “All You Need Is Love” at a Copper Age Khvalynsk horse sacrifice in the Eurasian steppes, the humans there might just understand what the Beatles were singing about, and maybe even spare the horse.

But just because the word has meant the same thing forever doesn’t make the nuances of its meaning any clearer. Merriam-Webster has more than 20 different definitions for the word, and if I looked it up in the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, I’d probably need to use up my remaining vacation days. Because, in its ancient single syllable, love contains a spectrum of semantic shades. It means something so clearly different when referring to a friend or a romantic partner or a band or a sports team or a color that my girlfriend won’t get jealous if I say “I love Adam Driver” and my waiter won’t have me committed if I say “I love this pie.” It can mean everything from mild pleasure to the deepest obsession, yet context and intuition rarely render the word confusing. It’s a short sound that accesses something huge and indefinable shared by all humans across space and time, like a long, thin well to a deep, clear underwater ocean.

Perhaps love is not meant to be defined—just used. Context and intuition tell us whether it’s an instinctual positive response, a metaphysical attraction, or a spiritual symbiosis. My favorite definition comes from literature, specifically from the master of bending English to express the abstractions of inner life, James Joyce, who proclaims in his epic masterpiece, Ulysses, that “love loves to love love.” Paradoxical, nonsensical, yet impossible to misunderstand—a perfect illustration of the idea that the intuitive meaning of the word works only in practice. But Joyce is a tad arcane for a Monday puzzle, so last week’s Valentine’s Day clue utilized my other favorite use of the word, the gushy interjection: “So precious!”

Play the rest of Monday’s crossword, and keep up with the week’s puzzles.