If you’re well acquainted with me or my blog, you know I take words and their meanings very seriously. A new friend recently made my day by calling me a philologist; I suspect I’ve had less favorable epithets uttered behind my back. I’ve been guilty of nailing many an unsuspecting person’s hide to the wall for crimes of equivocation or sloppy usage, and no doubt my tendency to do this is not my most endearing personality trait. But darn it, truth and accuracy matter. Words are the vehicles of rational thought and communication. If someone misunderstands a word’s meaning—or, worse, subtly alters it and then tries to have it both ways—then discourse becomes a train wreck.
In his preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addressed this subject more clearly than I ever could. The long passage is worth quoting in full.
The word gentleman originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said—so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully—“Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behavior? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A “nice” meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.
People hurl these linguistic monstrosities at us every day. “Everyone’s a winner,” they say. Seriously? Then I guess “winner” is just a synonym for “human being.” Or, “Death doesn’t matter. As long as you keep his memory alive, he hasn’t really gone.” No kidding?! Then where the heck is he? I never forgot him, but I haven’t seen him around in years.
Then there’s this one: “That’s not love, it’s just infatuation.” Teenagers are the target group here. The idea is that you have to reach a certain maturity level before what you think is love is worthy of the name. A Christian might further muddy the water by bringing in the Greek word agape, insisting that the only true love is the disinterested self-sacrificial sort, and ignoring the other Greek and Hebrew words that are translated “love” in English Bibles. (And if that be the case, if love doesn’t count until it attains some uber-level of Christlikeness, then God help us all.) Interestingly, it’s only romantic love that’s dealt with this way. I’ve never heard anyone suggest a teenager is incapable of filial or fraternal love.
Why the equivocation? As Lewis says, these people mean well. Maybe they’re trying to guard against youthful rashness, or reacting against our culture’s oversexualization of the very young. But it’s no good avoiding one error by falling into another.
Do young people sometimes use the word “love” carelessly or erroneously? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love. Truth is, people love according to their stature: wisely or foolishly, sacrificially or selfishly, fleetingly or enduringly. But even an imperfect love is still there. It’s wrong to denigrate the emotions of a person of any age by calling them by another name. And age is not the only or best indicator of emotional maturity. Over my years of giving premarital counseling and of just quietly observing folks around me, I’ve seen some who are more ready for the demands of marriage at eighteen than others are at thirty-five. It depends entirely on the individual.
“But who cares?” an impatient reader may ask. “What possible difference could it make which word is used?” I say it makes a big difference. I dislike the protracted childhood that’s become the norm for young adults in our society; we suppress their natural drives, ply them with amusements, then wonder why they implode. I’m not suggesting anything odd, like allowing fourteen-year-olds to marry and buy property. Teenagers need guidance and protection, in some ways even more than young children. But let us at least pay them the compliment of taking them and their emotions seriously.