What does Love Mean? … This is an age old question that has occupied poets and playwrights, Philosophers and songwriters, and many a love struck and lovelorn teenager and adult. One can only feel sorry for the lexicographer who must take on the task of defining this word love in all its nuances and manifestations.
Just take the phrase ‘I Love You’ and consider the many meanings of love in this one utterance depending on the object of one’s affection.
‘I love you’ to a child or to a parent: This expresses familial affection and closeness.
vs. ‘I love you’ to a piece of chocolate cake which suggest strong partiality and enjoyment, pleasure in that piece of cake.
‘I love you’ to a dear friend. That suggests a long standing, deep affection, real care.
And then there is, ‘I love you’ to a romantic partner. Deep affection plus sexual attraction, that special feeling that may not happen often.
And how loaded this speech act is with the romantic interest. A speech act that people wait for because I think we see it as coming with a kinda promise about a future and about a commitment to intimacy.
It is a speech act that can also raise complications in terms of reciprocity. If someone says I love you, what do you say back? One is ‘I love you too.’ But does that sound like you are only saying it because they said it first. What if you are not ready to say ‘I love you?’ What do you say? The person says ‘I love you,’ you say ‘Thank you,’ or ‘I know’ — neither of which seem like very good responses to that particular speech act.
So look at all we have done with just three words there – ‘I love you.’ As I said you have to feel sorry for the lexicographer facing down this word.”
— Anne Curzan, Ph.D. University of Michigan – Fooling Around — The Language of Love Lecture 29 from The Secret Life of Words: English Words and their origins (The Great Courses)