It feels like a troublesome topic to tackle—even in February. So let’s begin simpler, with a chair.
If I were to set a chair in front of you and ask you to write a definition of it without using the word itself, you might describe its appearance, or detail its function, or both.
Eventually, I’m certain we would come to a workable definition, not so far from that in Merriam-Webster, which would allow me to say “please bring me a chair,” and a chair you would bring, one which we would all agree is a chair—something with a seat and a back that is intended to serve for sitting. This is definitive language, which is largely objective and allows us to have a commonly held set of terms for objects and ideas.
Emotions are another thing. Instead of “chair,” let’s say I asked you to define “love.” Our approaches would be widely divergent. Some would define it in abstract terms; some would attempt to be idealistic; others would be entirely cynical, referring to past loves gone wrong. And some would turn to foreign or ancient tongues and assert different words to define various types of love. That’s well and good, but it’s not what we practice.
We use the one word, love, for a host of things. I love lasagna, I love my mother, and I love hiking—God forbid I ever confuse the three.
Discussion of love with other humans makes things even more difficult—if someone who has long been a friend but for whom you’ve held stronger feelings says “I love you,” what do they mean? How can you tell? As noted, we use “love” for everything from football to fashion. How do you get more information? If you respond “me too,” you leave the issue in limbo. You might ask, “just how do you love me” or “in what way do you love me?” Risky business, but that’s how it goes in love.
It’s easy to do “chair” in definitive language. “Love” requires something else. If you’re going to find out what love means when another person expresses it to you, you’re going to need a comparison to something both of you already know. That’s how we make the unknowable, known: by comparison. You may not be hoping for it, but if the response is, “I love you like a brother,” then the comparison is clearly drawn to something both of you know: the love between siblings.
In the study of poetic language, because that’s most certainly where we’ve arrived, this is known as figurative language—instead of attempting to explain, we draw a comparison to something else. With “I love you like a brother,” all of the qualities and limitations of the sibling relationship apply, and thus love is better understood. If the response is “my love for you is like a rose,” or “I love you like bacon loves tomatoes,” the same rules apply. Learn the qualities of the thing being compared, and you learn the qualities of the love being expressed. That’s figurative language at work.
What else needs figurative language? Emotions and ideas that are terribly hard to define. Our loves, our hates, our spiritual and political beliefs—our differences. If we speak in terms of what we and our audience already understand, we just might be able to communicate something new.
Love is an uncertain emotion—and each time we experience it for the first time, it is the new frontier, the undiscovered country, the risky journey and uncertain future for which we need a new and shared language.
But oh, the reward.
These letters from the editor are amazing. Keith Norris combines skillful and nuanced writing with insightful takes on whatever he is writing about. Always worthwhile reads.