What ‘love’ means from person to person, let alone from century to century, is one of the most varied in the English language. The word ‘love’ was once ‘*leubh’, a word used by the Proto-Indo-Europeans approximately five thousand years ago to describe care and desire. When ‘love’ was incorporated into Old English as ‘lufu’, it had turned into both a noun to describe, ‘deep affection’ and its offspring verb, ‘to be very fond of’.
One of the earliest uses of ‘love’, and its biggest influence, was religion. ‘Love’ was used to describe the benevolence and affection of God, as well as the affectionate devotion due to God, ‘God is loue, and hee that dwelleth in loue, dwelleth in God’ (John 4:16). From this widely recognized meaning, ‘love’ began to be used to positively describe instances of affection or acts of kindness.
From Middle English onwards, the most popular meaning for ‘love’ however was to describe a ‘beloved person’(1255)-especially one’s sweetheart. This naturally turned ‘love’ into an intimate form of address which began to describe goings on of ‘lovers’ such as love letters (c.1240) and love songs (c.1310). One could say that they had ‘fallen in love’ with someone from 1423, and under a hundred years later that they were ‘lovesick’ (1530). To ‘make love’ (1580) meant to ‘pay amorous attention’ to another person and it wasn’t till the middle of the twentieth century that it became a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The word ‘love’ was introduced to tennis from 1742 to mean ‘no score’- from the notion of playing ‘for love’, came the notion ‘playing for nothing’.
Of course the sexual meaning of ‘love’ was present from the very beginnings of Old English, but it was only from the late 17th century that ‘love’ was more strongly associated with sex. At first ‘love’ was used to describe the personification of sexual affection in the form of cupid, ‘Wher’er her step in beauty moves, around her fly a thousand loves’. By the early 18th century, however, ‘love’ began to mean an illicit partner, or even sexual intercourse itself. From this meaning came the negative term ‘love brat’, or its modern form ‘love child’ (1805), which described a ‘child born out of wedlock’. New meanings for ‘love’ were still being created well into the 20th century- ‘love life’ (1919) began to mean ‘one’s collective amorous activities’ and was originally used as psychological jargon.
Illustration: Philippa Rice