See "When Truth Isn't Enough".

But my father and my mother
Said we'd learn to love each other
And now I'm asking, Golde
Do you love me?

I'm your wife

"I know..."
But do you love me?

Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought with him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?

Then you love me?

I suppose I do

And I suppose I love you too

It doesn't change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It's nice to know.


Love is a commitment, not a feeling

It's a marriage, not a civil union.

It's a baby, not a fetus.

Is this a date?

It contradicts the rest! Contradict? No, I'd say it complements it.

I'm an attorney. Nah, man, you're just a lawyer.

Who are you to judge? I'm not judging, I'm just saying what I think.


Denotation is what a word officially means. Connotation refers to the underlying meanings. Many times, two words with the same denotation will have different connotations.

I like to think of each word like the center of a web. Running off from the center of the web are connections to other ideas. For example, "attorney" might be at the center of a web that connects to ideas of respectability and honor, while "lawyer" might be at the center of a web that has lines running off towards sliminess and shallowness. Knowledge of the words' connotations is enough to predict how lawyer's (excuse me, attorneys) introduce themselves.

Wouldn't it be amazing if we could take the positive connotations connected to the attorney concept and just attach them to something else, something that we want people to think well of? Bam! Instant respectability. If only...

Alternatively, imagine if we could take the negative connations around a word like "fascist" and tie those connotations around our enemies' necks! They'd be politically crippled and our victory would be assured.

This is one of the key political moves and it works like so.

Concept 1 has some connotations attached to it.

Concept 2 doesn't have those connations.

You'd like people to think about Concept 2 in the same way they think about Concept 1; you want Concept 2 to have the first concept's connotations.

So, you simply take the word that refers to Concept 1, and insist that it's "true" meaning is Concept 2.


Love is a commitment, not a feeling.

Usually, when we talk about love, we are talking about feelings. And they're great feelings. Because they're so great, they've earned, on their own merit, lots of positive connotations, so much so that everyone's in favor of love.

Commitment, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. Some commitments are great, some aren't. It's not a word that has pure sparkly fuzz connotations. But, sometimes, we'd like people to feel really positive towards commitments, when there's a commitment that we want to get them to make. How can we make people fall in love with commitment?

We just say that "love" is truly about commitment. In essence, we're plucking the love concept out of the center of its rightfully-earned web of connations, and swapping in "commitment" instead. Now, people will think of love, that'll lead them to think of commitment, and then when their brains look up the connotations around commitment, they'll see nothing but perfect, sparkly angel fuzz. Voila! Commitment is amazing!

Sparkly fuzz carries a threat with it, too, of course. Nobody can get away with opposing love. So, if you can get people to think that love = commitment, now they can't get away with opposing commitment. A useful trick when you want someone to be committed to a relationship, for example.

Now, a more political example. Ahem "Shame on you if you weren't on the side of love" went around in America during the movement to convince the government to treat gay marriage the same way it treats straight marriage.

It's not quite as simple as "love = gay marriage," of course, but, nonetheless, this slogan tries to tie love to gay marriage as a way of giving gay marriage the same air of invincibility that love enjoys. It wants to take the connotations around the word love, and give them to gay marriage. "Oh, you opposed love?" "What, no, just gay marriage." "Right, yeah, you opposed love. Wow, what kind of person opposes love?"

Something similar happened to Tevye and Golde. They lived their marriage. What possible difference could it make whether or not they used the word "love" to label the relationship that existed between them? Well, love has lovely connotations, so when they got around to calling it love, it picked up those connotations. If I had to guess, it didn't quite deserve the connotations. After all, the relationship, unlabeled as it was, must have developed natural and accurate connections to other concepts. Together, those concepts, some good, and probably some bad, formed an aggregate affect, net positive in Tevye and Golde's case. I might imagine that this natural aggregate, earned on the basis of what the actual nature of the relationship was, would be the most accurate measure of the relationship's affective effect on Tevye and Golde.

When they decided it was okay to call it love, that act overlayed some new connotations onto their relationship, by granting it membership into the "relationships of looove" category. Naturally, those connotations weren't there before, and why not? Because the relationship didn't earn those connotations for itself. If it had already had the same connotations, attaching the love label would have been redundant and wouldn't have made them feel "nice."

Nonetheless, while they say it's "nice to know," they also say "it doesn't change a thing," suggesting that very little information was added to their concept of their relationship. Far worse examples of this phenomena occur in the young and naive, who have an ordinary, immature relationship of two weeks, who then go over the moon with positive affect as soon as they designate themselves as "in love." Here, it seems to me, giving their relationship all the connotations around the word "love" adds a lot of undeserved information, making them think their relationship is very different from what it really is.

Some cases are trivial, others harmful, some social, others political. In short, you can take concepts which have earned their connotations, whether negative or positive, and you can weaponize them. You find the word used to refer to concept, and then you insist that its true meaning insist that the word's true meaning is whatever you want to have the first concept's connotations. If you can get people to change their vocabulary, you can get their brains to change the connotations around concepts, and if you can get them to do that, you can get them to treat Concept 2 as if it were Concept 1, even if it's not, even if it doesn't deserve Concept 1's treatment.

(The vaguer the word, the more easily you can convince people that its "true" meaning is practically anything you want. Words like "fascist" have become so vague that they essentially exist only to give their negative connotations to any target we choose. On the other hand, it's quite difficult to call a politician "a homicidal manic." The word is too specific and meaningful, so it can't be used to lend affect to just anything. In contrast, "love" can be very vague, and so, is also a very versatile weapon, allowing you to designate your favored concepts with invincibility and inherent virtue.)

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:06 AM

Do you want to say that the common meaning of the word love is nothing more than what Golde recounts?

(Fixed the link at the top, sorry for markdown formatting going crazy)