Why do we have such strange ways of saying we’re in love—whether we’re infatuated, head over heels, or crushing on someone? The answer involves structural metaphors, semantic change, and secret diaries.
Love Is Out of Control
Sometimes it’s not enough just to say we like someone. Sometimes we’re SO passionately enamored that normal, everyday words just don’t describe it. In fact, we’ve created an entire metaphorical system to describe the way we experience love. A structural metaphor, as this is called, is when we map an abstract concept onto a more concrete concept and develop layers of metaphors upon this structural foundation—a foundation that we don’t even need to define or explain to understand. Structural metaphors are so embedded in language that it is difficult to communicate without them, and we expect others to understand them intuitively.
When it comes to love, we have a few structural metaphors that serve as the foundation for the way we talk about it: love is out of control, love is magic, and love is a journey.
Let’s take a look at love is out of control. Think about how it feels to fall in love with someone: your palms sweat, your heart races, you feel a little shaky, and you would do anything to impress the object of your affection. You do things that seem silly or dumb or out of control based on intense feelings of attraction.
You’re falling in love, a variation using vertical velocity on the theme of being out of control.
Maybe you’re infatuated—a word that comes from the verb infatuate, meaning “to turn something into foolishness, to make a fool of.”
Or you’re besotted—“affected with a foolish manifestation.”
You’re crazy about her, he’s driving you wild, you’re madly in love with your new beau!
Head over Heels
So why do we say that someone is “head over heels” when they’re in love? Isn’t your head . . . usually above your heels?
In the 14th century, the phrase “heels over head” came about as a way to describe the feeling of being upside down—hopelessly, topsy turvy in love with someone. This phrase builds on the structural metaphor of love is out of control—think about how it feels to do a somersault—you’re dizzy, the blood rushes to your head, the world suddenly looks very different.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, this phrase was gradually recast as “head over heels,” which makes a little less sense but still conveys to us a sense of doing somersaults or cartwheels. The phrase can also mean literally tumbling upside down, or it can mean running frantically.
The primary meaning of crush is to smash or to pound something to particles. Figuratively, it means to humiliate or demoralize, to “cause overwhelming pain to someone,” or to “suppress or overwhelm as if by pressure or by weight.”
A crush is an intense and usually transient affection, and it can definitely be overwhelming, drawing on one of the meanings of the word crush. Emotions are running wild. It can be humiliating if the crush is not reciprocated. It is the emotional equivalent—in both the positive feeling of being in love and the negative fear of rejection or humiliation—of being smashed to pieces. When we think about the structural metaphor of love is out of control, crush seems like a good way to describe this feeling!
The first recorded use of crush as a noun meaning “a person one is infatuated with” occurred in 1884 in the diary of Isabella Maud Rittenhouse, a young woman of Cairo, Illinois, and later an outspoken leader of the women’s suffrage movement. She wrote, “Wintie is weeping because her crush is gone.”
Soon thereafter, in 1895, the word was first used as a verb meaning “to be infatuated with someone.” In a book about life at Yale University, it was recorded that “Miss Palfrey . . . consented to wear his bunch of blue violets. It was a ‘crush,’ you see, on both sides.”
The new use of crush may have been influenced by the scandalous 1856 novel Madam Bovary, whose English translation includes a passage that describes an overwhelming and potentially disastrous infatuation:
But the more Emma recognized her love, the more she crushed it down that it might not be evident, that she might make it less. She would have liked Leon to guess it, and she imagined chances, catastrophes that should facilitate this.
Alternatively, Warren Clements proposes that Isabella Maud Rittenhouse’s use of crush may have been a parallel to the word mash, which had been used since the 1870s to mean one’s “sweetheart.” To be mashed was to be “flirtatious or head over heels in love.” (Another term popular around the same time was pash, a shortened form of passion: “He really has a pash for you!”)
Going back even further, Ernest Weekley’s Etymological Dictionary of Modern English postulated that since mash was “regarded as spoon-diet,” the kind of fare for one who couldn’t chew their food properly, mash may have been related to the slang term spoony. Since the 1820s, spoony had been used to mean being romantic in a goofy, sentimental way.
From spoony to the mash eaten with that spoon to crush, a synonym of mash, we sure have a way of describing our out-of-control romantic attachments.
Adams, Cecil. “Shouldn’t the Expression “Head over Heels” Be “Heels over Head”? The Straight Dope,May 17, 1991. https://www.straightdope.com/21341906/shouldn-t-the-expression-head-over-heels-be-heels-over-head.
Clements, Warren. “Feeding Love by the Spoonful.” The Globe and Mail, August 26, 2011. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/feeding-love-by-the-spoonful/article626912/.
“Crush.” Etymology Online Dictionary. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/crush#etymonline_v_416.
“Crush.” Merriam-Webster. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crush.
“Head over Heels.” Dictionary.com. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/head-over-heels.
“Isabella Maud Rittenhouse Mayne.” Find a Grave. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/144080841/isabella-maud-mayne.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1980.
Lawler, John. “Making the Point with Metaphors—Not Just for Poets.” The Editorial Eye 28, no. 4 (April 2005): 1–3. http://websites.umich.edu/~jlawler/April05Eye.pdf.