The Vocabulary of Love: What are “Lovers?”

CoupleWhile looking up something else I came across a blog by Kate Trgovac which featured an article on “The Subtext of Stock Photography.”

In it Kate describes how images of a loving same-sex couple (pictured here) appeared in her search for images to illustrate an article on furnaces.  Gay couples apparently show up when you search for the term “heat.”

“Seriously?” she wrote, “Maybe two scantily clothed men making out in front of the fireplace.  But two gay stockbrokers with their chihuahua?  Hardly… why is it that ‘gay’ in all of its forms implies a licentiousness or luridness?”

I was reminded of a quote by Yale professor John Boswell who described some of the pitfalls of translating terms for emotionally charged vocabulary related to love, relationships and marriage.

“Modern English has no standard term for same-sex partners in a permanent, committed relationship, so it is virtually impossible to translate ancient terms for this (of which there were many) accurately into contemporary English,” he wrote.  “Probably the most common word in contemporary English is ‘lover,’ but it is quite misleading… A heterosexual ‘lover’ is generally not the equivalent of a spouse: it is either someone to whom a heterosexual is not married (or not yet married) or a love interest in addition to a spouse, seen on the side and usually clandestine… these associations are not apposite to ‘lover’ as applied to same-sex couples, for whom the world almost always designates the primary and exclusive focus of erotic life, usually intended to remain so permanently.  Using ‘lover’ for same-sex partners implicitly suggests that all same-sex unions are illicit relationships, comparable to what passes between a heterosexually married male and his mistress rather than to the man’s union with his wife.”

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