Words for Love and Sex

Do our words bias our thoughts?   Consider how differently we treat words for love and sex.

Words related to "love" tend to refer to usefully distinct concepts.  Words like "affection, devotion, fondness, and infatuation" describe identifiably different relationships and feelings.  But when we want to describe our affections for each other, we tend to gravitate to the common word "love." 

Words related to "sex," in contrast, tend to refer to pretty much the same concept.  Words like "intercourse, copulation, coitus, congress, relations" have a very similar connotation.  Some other words that don’t go in a family blog give connotations that vary along a spectrum of shock value, and sometimes identify alternative physical positions.   But while we can construct concepts that describe differing sex details or context, we don’t seem much interested in communicating those details.  Nevertheless, we go out of our way to use a wide variety of words for "sex." 

Perhaps those who use different words instead of "love" tend to be less focused on an exclusive relation with a single person, and so we gravitate to "love" to avoid this appearance.  Perhaps we use different words for "sex" in order to signal that we don’t consider our sex partners to be easily interchangeable with others.   

Whatever the reasons, it seems that using a common word can distract us from useful distinctions, while using differing words can distract us from commonalities.  Thanks to Colleen Berndt for suggesting the topic. 

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  • rcriii

    Do our words bias our thoughts?

    Of course. In college I took a linguistics class and my professor used the example of an argument. He noted that we usualy use the metaphor of a fight for arguments, and asked us to imagine how we might approach it differently if we used the metaphor of a dance.

    Words like “intercourse, copulation, coitus, congress, relations” have a very similar connotation. … Nevertheless, we go out of our way to use a wide variety of words for “sex.”

    Are you reading too much into this? Might all of the different terms have shades of meaning that are only required in specialized situations, but ‘sex’ is appropriate almost all the time? In my business we almost always talk of ‘boats’ or ‘ships’, but there are plenty of other terms we could use (dinghy, tender, tug, launch, freighter, etc).

    Maybe the class of activities described by the word ‘sex’ is much less diverse than the set of relationships of which love is one?

  • Intriguing thoughts, though it seems to me that people who use several words for “sex” on a regular basis are either insecure and shifty when speaking on the subject or are overly obsessed with it. From my experience, couples tend to focus on a single word or very small set of words for “sex” when not describing a certain position (and even then the words used to describe each position are very limited).

    To proceed in a backwards fashion, words used in place of “love” have always greatly interested me, partly because it seems like the word “love” has been so drowned out by the triteness of mass media and celebrities in Hollywood. Again from my experience, I find people (including myself) searching for alternate words to express love in order to avoid the painful clichés that come to us from popular culture.

  • Brad, I agree that couples find a regular word, but different couples find different words. With “love” different couples use the same word.

    Rciii, it could be that we find sex act differences less interesting that love feeling differences, but then it is odd we have so many words for sex.

  • TGGP

    A fight sounds like a much better metaphor for an argument than a dance. Unless we’re talking about the professional arguers (not to be confused with those who work in abuse) from Monty Python.

  • rcriii

    Robin is it odd that we have many words for sex, or odd that we have so few words for actual love (as opposed to relationships similar to but short of love)? Actually I think that the word ‘sex’ has a function more like the word ‘relationship’ that ‘love’ – it is both the name of a class of things and one thing in that class.

    TGGP, it depends on whether the goal in arguing is to persuade the other person or to find the truth. To take another example of words biasing our thoughts, imagine if 9/11 was framed not as an act of war but instead as a mass murder for which we sought to bring the perpetrators to justice.

  • nelziq

    This is a “family blog”? Really? Are there that many 12 year olds interested in reading in-depth discussions about systematic cognitive failures? Do you think parents are reading articles about the latest psychological reasearch to their 6 year old at bed time? How about we discuss how the use of phrases like “family blog” can give us an uninspected and unjustified rationalization for self-censorship.

  • Lee

    The comment above this one (by nelzig) got to it before me. Family blog?

    The only academic blog I know of with the balls to drop the f-bomb as needed is Language Log. Just as doctors are less irrationally fearful of touching the dead, so linguists are not afraid to say a dirty word.

    Talk about language bias….

  • “Family blog” was a bit tounge in cheek. I don’t mind us using non-family words if they are needed to communicate a point. I found I didn’t need to actually use such words to make my point.

  • Brad says: “…I find people (including myself) searching for alternate words to express love in order to avoid the painful clichés that come to us from popular culture.”

    I agree. My grade six sex education teacher once put us (“us” being aprox. 20 girls) through an exercise where we were instructed to anonymously write down the word we prefer to use when discussing sexual intercourse. “Love” got all of the votes, save for one “sex.” No other words were chosen, despite that we were given no restrictions. Perhaps “love” had an accurate enough meaning to us because (in part) popular culture hadn’t worn the word thin in our minds. Mind you, it’s also fair to assume that we lacked creative vocabulary in this subject (which also might relate back to popular culture’s influence).

  • Douglas Knight

    I think I agree with rciii and maybe Brad in finding the theory of love more convincing than the theory of sex.

    I don’t know anyone who uses “intercourse, copulation, coitus, congress, relations,” all of which sound clinical or old-fashioned to me. Additionally, the crude words signal to me that partners are interchangeable; they are used more of others than of oneself.

    Actually, Brad’s point about couples fixing on a particular word is the best evidence I see of signaling that the partner is special. I suspect that RH was making a claim about the more general usage that we didn’t get.

  • I wonder, though, if this pattern repeats outside of English, especially in non-European languages.

  • Gorden, a great question – any multilingual folks care to comment?

  • Michael Hunter

    My non-english language skill are pretty limited but I remember in spanish the difficulty many people had with the verb gustar. Its the opposite of disgustar which we don’t have (not as an antonym of disgust at least) in english. There seemed to be at least a little bit of a common difficulty to the beginning spanish speaker to think of using gustar in a lot of places one might say love but really mean “pleasing to me” instead of any type of romantic love. This conflating of more meanings onto the word love in english and the subsequent difficulty in understanding how another language doesn’t do that works seems like it could be used in support of your thesis.

    Of course then this countries conservative moral outlook tends to cause (church ladies voice) sex to be treated as something the has to be whispered about. In a self perpetuating manner this creates a situation where we are not as comfortable talking about sex and don’t have the number of words or spread of meanings which makes it easy to talk about.