Why Love Is Vague

Concepts can vary from specific to abstract, and it makes sense to have more concepts, at varying levels of abstraction, on topics we care more about.  Hence the myth that Eskimos have more words for snow. 

Our relations with each other are very important to us, and they vary in a great many important ways.  Why then do we use the word "love" so often to describe our relations, as in the famous three words "I love you."  Why not instead use a variety of more precise words that convey more detailed meaning?  Why not say "I wistfully-romantically-heart you" or "I hopefully-lustfully-want you" or "I wearily-unwillingly-stick-to you"? 

The answer comes, I think from realizing that if we described our relations in more detail, we would have to acknowledge finer changes in our relations.  Our current "I love you" approach lets us use the same descriptor at all stages in our relation, and at all points in our mood cycles.  We don't have to announce when our relation moves from hopeful lust to wild passion to tender comfort to favorite-old-shirt familiarity.  Such announcements could be quite awkward, especially if our perceptions are not exactly in sync.

I suspect we are also purposely vague with many of the other words we use, but I haven't spend much time trying to think of other examples.  Can readers think of more examples?

Added: Tyler once listed many different reasons to say "I love you."

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  • Nominull

    “believe”

  • AWoodside

    Sexual orientation/identity can be sub-divided into many categories, especially if you include different fetishes: Gay, bisexual, transgendered, homosexual, bestiality, S&M, etc. I think in general the fine divisions are not resolved by the average heterosexual. Instead s/he lumps a swath of behaviors into the category “perverse” or some other vague term.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Guys, we want not just examples of vague concepts, but also explanations of what would go wrong if we instead used more precise concepts.

  • AWoodside

    In the sexuality case using more precise concepts might signal that you were in some sense engaged with or curious about these communities. In many circles this is frowned upon. In general, advertising that you can finely resolve a concept signals that you care about it enough to devote some thought to it. If thinking about a certain topic is not approved of in a given community vague labels will surround it.

    The term “Statist” used by the Voluntarist/Anarcho-Capitalist community is a similar example.

  • Chris

    Awoodside, we don’t just do that with sex. We do it with food as well. There are two kinds of food, yummy and yucky.

    Having spoken to gay guys, I think they do the same with sex. They are just more polite when describing the “yucky” category, being aware that they are a minority in their preferences.

    Having minority food preferences, I do the same thing. I find dead animals yucky, but I mostly keep it to myself. I don’t want to be “that guy”.

  • Binary love

    0 and 1 meet.
    They agree 01 is better than 0 1.
    0 prefers 1′s 1 to 0 and 1 prefers 0′s 0 to 1.
    Occasionally some 010101010101 happens, resulting in random changes from 000000111111 to 011100001101, and in more 1s and 0s.
    It appears you can do a whole lot more with 0 and 1 than with 0 or 1. In the beginning there was 0. Then 1 appeared and that was quite enough. Or perhaps, in the beginning there was 1; everything possible existed, every possible infinite time stream was occurring at every possible point of their time at the same time; the “playback pointer” was at every point on the infinite time span on an infinite number of time streams. Everything that could happen happened at every point in time. Then 0, nothingness, came into being. Finiteness entered the game.

  • frelkins

    Why not instead use a variety of more precise words that convey more detailed meaning?

    Well we could, you know, if people weren’t so lazy. We English speakers are gifted with one of the planet’s largest vocabularies, even if half of these approx. 750,000 words are only the names of chemicals.

    Why not say “I wistfully-romantically-heart you” or “I hopefully-lustfully-want you” or “I wearily-unwillingly-stick-to you”?

    Because we have wonderful verbs that express these senses?

    I wistfully-romantically-heart you = I yearn for you (yearn carries the sense of “with sad desire,” as expressed in wistful – wist from an archaic English word “to intend” that has now come to indicate a feeling of sorrow or melancholy. We do live in a melancholy aeon.)
    I hopefully-lustfully-want you = I desire you or I covet you (correct English, but little used, covet meaning “longing to possess,” more intense than desire)
    I wearily-unwillingly-stick-to you = I’m bound by you (bound by holds the meaning “held against the will as a moral obligation” as in “bound by my word.”)

  • Ralph Woods

    Talking only about the example you mentioned in the article; love; I think this “vagueness” is very useful. We all have different ideals of love. When someone tells me they love me, depending on the person, the moment, etc, I immediately construe the “appropriate kind of love” to match its use in the present conditions. If the woman I fancy tells me for the first time she “feels comfortably exhilarated with me, and would like to increase our involvement so she could explore with me everything sex has to offer in a safer emotional environment”, I wouldn’t be as thrilled as if she had told me for the first time she loved me, even though the first sentiment might describe exactly how she actually feels. And the idea that I make in my head of the “love” she feels for me is much more pleasant.

  • Cameron Taylor

    Understand.

    I comprehend the meaning of the concepts you are explaining.
    I empathise with your feelings in the circumstances.
    I acknowledge the social signals you are conveying by asserting that opinion.
    I comprehend the opinions and political motivations underlying the barrage of non-sequitur arguments you have presented.
    What you are saying is not something I wish to shame you for or otherwise reject with various social techniques.

    It took me far too long to realise that successful, intelligent people can get by without ever applying the first meaning I gave.

  • Cameron Taylor

    Pardon me, I hadn’t read Robin’s clarification.

    If ‘understand’ is not, well, understood then it is extremely difficult to communicate with 95% of the population. More importantly in this context it would be terribly impolite to go around acknowledging that people are speaking utter nonsense that you accept for social-political reasons. It is far safer for people to use ‘understand’ in such a way that there is some possibility that the message isn’t nonsensical or that meaning is even considered relevant by either party

  • Cameron Taylor

    Frelkins, would not ‘bound’ itself be another vague term? There are all sorts of potential connotations there…

  • Caliban Darklock

    I would nominate hate, want, like, and believe.

    I don’t hate Mondays the same way I hate spiders, or the same way I hate racism, or the same way I hate vegetarians.

    I don’t want a raise the same way I want a beer, or the same way I want to go home, or the same way I want the girl who works in the office down the hall.

    I don’t like my car the same way I like cheesecake, or the same way I like a television show, or the same way I like my neighbors.

    I don’t believe in God the same way I believe in justice, or the same way I believe in physics, or the same way I believe in you.

    The vagueness of the term is useful, because these terms are minefields. It’s very easy for you to disapprove of the specific way I love/hate/like/want/believe. It is more difficult to disapprove of the general concept. The vagueness is a social nicety, which assists others in their agreement with our views – they naturally imagine that my feeling toward X is the same as their similar feeling toward X, because honestly, what other kind would you have? – and thereby allows us to coexist even when there is significant friction in our views.

    It is possible, if one is either an idiot or a jerk, to exactly specify the nature of those feelings. This will not make friends and influence people, but if specificity is what you really… want… you can certainly do it.

  • spj

    The use of vague words is also for self deception. See Orwell.

  • HH

    “I immediately construe the “appropriate kind of love” to match its use in the present conditions”

    Continuing on this sentiment, our intentional vagueness seems to be just a useful shortcut in everyday conversation. The more common a term, in fact, the more likely it is to be vague. “Say,” “get,” “go,” “do,” “stuff.” We don’t have to exert ourselves mentally to find the right word [surely some words are more easily retrieved than others from the brain's dictionary], especially because most of the time, we can count on other people to interpret our words correctly. Most people, in context, will understand what you mean by “love” or “take that” or “sleep together.”

    In fact, using very specific words might lead to more misunderstandings: perhaps someone doesn’t quite put the right connotation into the specific words you use. “Lustful” may mean something entirely different to different people [specifically, men and women]. Leaving it at “I love you” might prevent this sort of misunderstanding.

  • anonym

    We are vague about our feelings of love towards the other because we don’t the other to give a precise description of their love towards us. As long as we don’t truly know, we are free to delude ourselves in a flattering way. Truth and precision are the enemies of blissful self-delusion….

  • http://www.tinygigantic.com axel albin

    “Yes”

    We often simply say “yes,” but if we were to be more expressive and precise, we might say “yes, but i wish it weren’t so” or “yes, with all of my heart” or “yes. can we talk about something else now please?” and so on.

    sometimes what matters most is having agreement. for example, negotiations often get derailed when both parties insist on talking about how they feel about the agreement on the table. the goal of a negotiation is not to align feelings, but to reach simple agreement.

  • prase

    You all seem to think it is quite easy to explain the feelings in a great detail, but for some reasons we refrain from it. What about different (maybe simpler?) hypothesis: When you learn the language in the childhood, it is difficult to comprehend concepts that cannot be directly shown to you. Parents can demonstrate all versions of what is “red”, but cannot show you all version of “love”. Maybe more specific terms would lead to more misunderstanding since each individual would use these in a dramatically different meaning. The overlaps of distinct individual’s interpretations of vague terms are bigger.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/huono_ekonomi/ Mikko

    Facebook friendship is an interesting related phenonemon. Most of us probably have experienced at least mild annoyances because facebook forces us to decide who is our facebook friend and who is not. Without the gray area we have in real life.

    More fundamentally, every word is vague. I think that’s the whole point of language. Language in Thought and Action is an excellent and interesting book on this subject.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    A lot of great (concise, thoughtful, informative) comments here! If the comments were only great in being well-worded, passionate, or high-status, I might only have said the vague word “great” to save commentators from embarrassment. :)

  • Justin

    One question, as mentioned, is whether some sort of inter-subjective understanding of the word (and the experience) is had. That is, whether the threshold for love for each party, however it might be conceived pre-interaction, is met. Then there is a different “love” that emerges between the two parties once they’ve been together, and again when they grow, and again, in different circumstances. At times, “I love you” can be fundamentally sincere but simultaneously used to defuse a situation, or to keep a solid working definition on the relationship when one party doubts its legitimacy or strength. But overall, I think the word is highly situational, and that’s what we’re missing when we try to type out the definition. I’m not sure we can cover for the situational aspect by becoming more precise, but we could try… and do try, hopefully, when separated.

  • Alan

    Have romantic ideals and expressions of affection changed over the course of time and do they varied amongst human cultures? I think it’s quite clear that they have. Anecdotally, I have not observed much evidence in the general population of self-awareness such as would enable persons to express their emotional states to others with precision. Even in cases where such self-awareness is present, what would be the adaptive rationale of more precise expressions of internally perceived emotional states? Keeping the notions vague is also a pleasant way to practice self-deception, more particularly, to project an emotional state and imagine that it is requited.

    Perhaps there is also some tacit recognition that talk is relatively cheap; actions speak louder than words. Much of what actually defines relationships is probably not verbalized.

  • frelkins

    @Alan

    much evidence in the general population of self-awareness such as would enable persons to express their emotional states to others with precision

    This is why people read poetry and gives books of poetry to others. Editions of Rumi have achieved bestseller status, while the cognoscenti display their affections by sending Deluy’s Carnal Love around. People long to express their emotions, but society rarely trains them to do so.

    vague is also a pleasant way to practice self-deception, more particularly, to project an emotional state and imagine that it is requited

    As noted above, Orwell takes on vague language as both deception and self-deception. Language clearly dresses thought, so we are sure that vague language indicates vague thinking.

    Perhaps from an ev perspective, such vagueness allowed us greater social cohesion by disguising disagreement and creating a feeling of more and stronger alliances. However in our current environment, this seems to backfire on us more and more. As societies grow larger, we need more precision to manage expectations and create firmer social structures.

  • J

    Hey Mr. Hanson- Inuit, not Eskimo.

  • John Maxwell

    Koine Greek had four words that meant love: phileo (friendship), eros (sex), storge (familial), and agape (unconditional). C.S. Lewis wrote about them in “The Four Loves”.

    I second frelkins comment. English lets us be precise when we want to be.

  • Manon de Gaillande

    I noticed most people don’t know their own feelings in much detail. Their knowledge of their feelings is more precise than mere “love”, but would be insufficient to use a wider range of verbs.

    Deception and self-deception have already been suggested, and I concur.

    There is a social norm in favor of “love”, and a social norm in favor of some feelings of romantical love (as well as other types of love, but it’s off-topic): children are shown extremely strong, purely romantic, altruistic, passionate and tender attachment described as “love” in stories to be taught the norm; but what adults describe as “love”, with a norm in favor of it, is either infatuation or a weaker attachment based on affection and habit.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Aleuts are Eskimoes but not Inuit and dislike when people refer to them as such. Similarly, the Bushmen/Hottentots don’t like being called “San”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/hopefullyanonymous/ Hopefully Anonymous

    “I suspect we are also purposely vague with many of the other words we use, but I haven’t spend much time trying to think of other examples.”

    I think you’re moving in a very fruitful direction with this. Like you’ve pointed out, a good place to start with a topic is an introductory textbook. I suspect this topic has been investigated in depth by linguists and other topic experts/researchers.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/huono_ekonomi/ Mikko

    Racist/sexist/chauvinist etc.

  • Mick P.

    HA, I think there is an entire sub-area of philosophy that studies this. I just googled it and it appears to be called fallacies of vagueness.

    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/vaguenes.html

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vagueness/

  • Jim Gannon

    Brits have the usage of “fancy” as in “I fancy her” to mean that I am interested in you romantically/sexually. We Yanks are stuck with the word “like” which ambiguously means either platonicly or romantically. Can anyone think of a term in the American dialect that would substitute in the phrase “I fancy her”?

  • http://macrothics.blogspot.com nazgulnarsil

    legitimacy. is legitimacy bottom up or top down? Is an act granted legitimacy by the people who have authority over the one doing the act, or is it granted by the people whom the act affects?
    “I was just doing my job”
    “The people support our revolution”

  • Robert

    “Right” perhaps.

    Using a vague notion of rights makes an idea seem more sensible than it is.

    I have a right to healthcare. vs The world would be better if nobody ever had to pay for any healthcare they wanted.

    The former sounds bold and principled while the details of the second make it more vulnerable to criticism.

  • Mary

    “Why not instead use a variety of more precise words that convey more detailed meaning?”

    I do. With certain people. Very few people, actually.

    Kind of OT, but I’m reminded of a Star Trek: TNG episode where Data described what friendship was to him. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but it was something about how his interactions with a person become an expected part of his functioning and become integrated into his programming to the extent that, when he doesn’t interact with that person for awhile, his functioning is less optimal, unless he adjusts his programming to reverse that integration. Or something. Anyway, even if it wasn’t completely sensible, it was awfully cute.

  • James Andrix

    “Can’t help it”

    Used to apply to actions from epileptic seizures to quick decisions to sexual behavior to addictions to regular habits.

    If we were specific it would sometimes no longer fill in the social space where an excuse would go.

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