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Making Like-Like Happen

August 24, 2010

I consider it a great failing of the English language that there are not many commonly-used words to describe the feelings that fall between “like” and “love.”

The closest thing I can think of goes back to elementary school. There’s “like”, “like-like” and “love.” You like your friends. That cute boy who cheered for you during kickball in gym class? Like-like. Your parents, chocolate ice cream, and purple? Love. It may seem a subtle difference between like-like and love, but kids know. Like-like doesn’t imply commitment, but love does. As every kid will utter at some point, “if you love something, why don’t you marry it?”. Nobody says, “if you like-like him, why don’t you marry him?”. There’s a tacit understanding that like-like is somewhere in between like and love. I find it frustrating that we’re more nuanced in our language regarding close relationships when we’re kids than when we’re adults.

In a quick poll of my friends, “adore” came up as possible vocabulary on the like-love spectrum. I do think this might be our most acceptable word available; in “West Side Story” Maria tells Tony, “Te adoro,” or, “I adore you,” in Spanish. But I’m not sure I like the word “adore.” To me, it sounds like worshiping the ground someone walks on. It’s one-sided, a bit like adulation. I looked both “adore” and “adulation” up in the dictionary, expecting them to share a root word. Surprisingly, they don’t. Adore comes from the Latin roots of ad and orare, meaning “to speak or pray.” Indeed, the first definition according to Merriam-Webster is “to worship or honor as a deity or as divine,” so my thoughts on this word are not entirely off-base. But the more common usage is in the third definition, “to be very fond of.” That tempers adore to a more appropriate level. Adulation, on the other hand, is a Latin word meaning “to fawn on (of dogs) [I have no idea what dogs have to do with fawning, unless it’s something to do with deer hunting], to flatter,” and is formally defined as “excessive or slavish admiration or flattery.” It falls only on the worshipful side, and sounds a bit more shallow than adoration. So, they are somewhat related in meaning, but are not the same.

Back to Tony and Maria. Adore makes sense for them, as they definitely have feelings stronger than like and they aren’t just about simply worshiping each other, which takes adulation out of the picture. But they haven’t spent the time together required to make the leap to love. Modern romances portrayed on stage, screen, and the page don’t show the same discretion. In far too many romantic comedies, our protagonists jump from introducing themselves to each other to dropping the L-word in record time. It’s one of the many things that ring untrue in these 21st century fairy tales, and I wonder if it’s propping up yet another unrealistic expectation for people’s romantic relationships. I’ve had friends who angsted long and hard over the fact that their boyfriends hadn’t said the three little words, even though it hadn’t been that long into the relationship. When we first anchor the word “love” to one end of a binary and then show people bandying it about like a meaningless phrase, confusion and angst result. Maybe having more “in-between” words to describe all the things leading up to the ultimate emotional goal of love would diffuse the tension.

So what are we to do? Should we accept adore as an official intermediate between like and love? Are there better words out there? It’s a sad artifact of our culture when the average person can come up with 10 terms for sex right off the top of his or her head, yet struggle to name more than one or two terms for romantic feelings between people. The urban myth is that Inuits have so many words for snow because it’s important to them. What’s more important to us, according to our common language?

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