Love Is A Measure Of Value, Linguistically Speaking

You’re expensive to me, baby.
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Love Is A Measure Of Value, Linguistically Speaking

In much of the English-speaking world, love is spoken of in terms that are almost holy. It’s of the body and yet not entirely of the body, verging toward the transcendent. But it doesn’t take much digging to learn that “love” doesn’t mean the same thing in every language. And if you explore some of the etymology behind “love” and its various synonyms, you might even find that in some cases, love is just another word for expensive.

Depending on where you’re from — or what time period you were alive in, assuming you’re a vampire and you’re reading this — the word “dear” was (and occasionally still is) synonymous with “expensive” in English. And as we’ll see in just a minute, this is a correlation you can observe in other languages as well.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “dear” can be defined as “loved or liked very much,” as well as “costing too much.”

This brings to mind phrases like “that will cost you dearly.” In this instance, it’s implied that the cost is likely intangible and intimately painful — as in the loss of something that’s held close to one’s heart.

Back in say, the 19th century, it wasn’t that unusual to use “dear” in a much more straightforward, economy-based sense, as in, “Eggs are very dear right now.”

The etymology of “dear” traces back to the Old English deore, which meant “precious, valuable; costly, expensive; glorious, noble; loved, beloved, regarded with affection.” Though at least some of these connotations sound really archaic now, it’s also been in use as an affectionate way of addressing someone since the 13th century. So we know that these two usages existed side by side for some time.

When international diamond corporation De Beers ran a successful advertising campaign in the 1930s that enshrined the diamond engagement ring as a symbol of “forever,” were love and luxury already linguistically intertwined? Perhaps the original meaning of that association was less garish than it seems today. But if the implicit connection was already embedded in our language, that would have given advertisers a considerably easier job to do.

Today, you’re unlikely to hear many people using “dear” to refer to the literal cost of an item in the United States. But you still might hear this sort of thing in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland and even Ontario.

And this isn’t unique to English, either. In fact, the relationship between “love” and “value” is made even more explicit in Tagalog. The word mahal translates to “love” when used as a noun, and “expensive” when used as an adjective. The phrase mahal kita means “I love you,” but with an underlying hint of “you’re expensive to me.” 

According to Philippine history professor Dayang Marikit, mahal mainly meant “expensive” in pre-colonial times, except when it was used as an honorific to address royals (think: “your highness”). Today, Filipinos express this same deference toward their loved ones.

In Spanish and Italian, the word caro (or cara) also can be used to mean “dear” and “expensive.” You can address a letter to someone using caro/a, as well as offer un caro abbraccio (“a dear hug”).

Does it cheapen our affections to put a price tag on them? Perhaps it’s the other way around — that we cheapened the value of things through the process of commodification. Love is invaluable, and that’s probably why language has created implicit ways of referring to its preciousness.

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