Valentine’s Day: The Language of Love

Saint Valentine’s Day, commonly shortened to Valentine’s Day,is a holiday observed on February 14 honoring one or more early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine. It is traditionally a day on which lovers express their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as “valentines“).The day first became associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. It was first established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, and was later deleted from the General Roman Calendar of saints in 1969 by Pope Paul VI.

Modern Valentine’s Day symbols include the heart-shaped outline, doves, and the figure of the winged Cupid. Since the 19th century, handwritten valentines have given way to mass-produced greeting cards.

Valentine: a sweetheart chosen or complimented on Valentine’s Day; a gift or greeting sent on this day
About the word: Christianity has more than one martyr named Valentine, and the one, true Valentine is uncertain. Romantics favor the tale of the third-century Roman physician and priest Valentine. Supposedly, Valentine had fallen in love with his jailer’s daughter, and shortly before his death sent a letter to her “from your Valentine.”

Romantic: marked by expressions of love or affection; conducive to or suitable for lovemaking; a person of romantic temperament or disposition (noun)
About the word: We associate this word with sweetness and love, but it emerged from the conquering powers of the Roman Empire. The expansion of ancient Rome created various dialects of Latin called “romans.” (These evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, and others – the Romance languages.) “Romans” were used to write popular stories involving chivalric or courtly love, and such tales became known as romances. If we describe Rome today as a “romantic” city, we’re using a word that has travelled a long way to come home.

Amour: a usually illicit love affair
Example: “The story of John Tschirhart is one that you would only expect to see in a compelling, haunting movie about romance, amour, passion and heartbreak…” – Dorian de Wind, The Huffington Post, Nov 9, 2010
About the word: In 2010, a poll of linguists rated amour – the French word for “love,” simple and sweet – the most romantic word in the world. In English, the word gains drama and loses innocence.

Adonis: a very handsome young man
Example: “The cool new crop of models at agencies like Major [are] guys closer to the Ivy League Adonis ideal of yesteryear….” – Guy Trebay,, July 21, 2010
About the word: In Greek mythology, the beautiful young Adonis was beloved by both Persephone and Aphrodite, so Zeus decreed the young man should divide his time and attention between the two goddesses. He was later killed by a wild boar – an attack that may have been arranged to avenge another of Adonis’ romantic intrigues.

Aphrodisiac: something that excites; an agent that arouses or is held to arouse sexual desire
Example: “To me, one of the most successful attributes of an aphrodisiac meal are colors, aromas, tastes and textures that wake up the palate and challenge the mind.” – Amy Reiley, quoted by Sarah Kershaw in, February 9, 2010
About the word: Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love (who was infatuated with Adonis) gave the Greeks the words ‘aphrodisia’ (heterosexual pleasure) and ‘aphrodisiakos’ (a gem with aphrodisiac powers).

Infatuation: foolish or extravagant love or admiration
Example: “And you are infatuated, which is a very different thing from love. Infatuation is like a roller coaster ride – crazy, scary and somewhat fun, while love is something more down to earth, less exhilarating, less dramatic but more real.” – letter to, January 6, 2011
About the word: An infatuation, by definition, is an emotion that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The word’s etymology makes the same point. It traces back to the Latin for “foolish” or “silly,” as does another insulting term: fatuous.

Casanova: lover, especially a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover
Example: “In stepped [Justin] Bieber, with his mop of hair and an impish personality that seems to be part Dennis the Menace and part teenage Casanova.” – Andy Downing, Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2010
About the word: In the 1700s, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was a spy, a clergyman, a gambler, and apparently a man of charm. He was also a writer. His autobiographical musings about his more than 100 lovers made his name a byword for a man who loves too much.

Unrequited: not reciprocated or returned in kind
Example:”Moreover, a good solution for unrequited love is, of course, new love.” – Lucinda Rosenfeld,, Nov 16 2010
About the word: Where there’s unrequited, there’s requited. So what does requite mean? To requite (a somewhat quaint term) is to give or do something in return for something that another person has given or done. So ‘unrequited love’ suggests an imbalance: too much love paid out and too little paid back.

Saccharine: overly sentimental; mawkish; unpleasantly sweet
Example: “A clever central conceit, a series of amusing gags, a modicum of drama, and a heartwarming but not too saccharine conclusion.” – John Swansburg, reviewing “How I Met Your Mother,”, March 23, 2010
About the word: Boxes of candy covered with cupids and hearts might, for some people, have a saccharine quality – both in sentiment and taste. For others, romantic and sugary excess is essential to Valentine’s Day. Either way, saccharine comes from saccharum, Latin for “sugar.” The word dates back to the 1600s. The calorie-free sweetener saccharin (without an e) arrived a couple hundred years later.

Sweetheart: darling; one who is loved
About the word: The Greeks and Egyptians believed the heart was the center of the emotions. English speakers borrowed the idea, and sweet + heart has been a term of endearment – particularly for romantic love – since the Middle Ages.


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