The Language of Love
In the United States, we pull petals off daisies: “loves me, loves me not.” In France, where hairs are not split, but coupés en quatre (cut in quarters), plucking marguerites has seven choices: Il m’aime, un peu, beaucoup, à la folie, passionnément, tendrement, pas du tout (he loves me, a little, a lot, madly, passionately, tenderly, not at all). Régine, mariée, divorcée, remariée, my informant in matters of the heart, explains:
“If he is fou d’elle (crazy about her), he’d say Je t’aime d’amour (with true love), de toute mon âme (all my soul) de toutes mes forces (ditto strength), ardemment (ardently), plus que le jour (more than the day), plus que ma vie (more than life itself). But his sweetheart would probably dismiss Je t’idolâtre (idolize) as theatrics. And Je te vénère (revere) would look like idolatry to good Catholics or Calvinists.
“Je suis amoureux de toi (I’m in love with you) goes the other way, towards ‘smitten,’ and even ‘I’ve got the hots for you.’ Avoir le béguin is to have a crush, but Je t’ai dans la peau (I’ve got you under my skin) has nothing to do with love. That’s lust.
“Don’t forget s’amouracher. If you say, Elle s’est amourachée de X, you imply she’s in love with a person you think is unworthy. After a breakup, someone may say, Je me suis amouraché de lui/d’elle which implies ‘I goofed, I was stupid, I was crazy’ or ‘He/she dumped me.’
“Friendship also makes fine distinctions: Je t’aime bien means ‘I like you a lot.’ Je t’aime beaucoup is stronger: ‘You mean a lot to me.’ But it has nothing to do with LOVE, i.e., LUV. It would be an absolute bummer to hear that from your amant (lover). Je t’aime de tout mon coeur means tendrement but is not necessarily LUV. A grandmother might say that to her grandchildren. Je te chéris (hold you dear) is a bit old fashioned. I remember a friend from the Sorbonne who used to say Je chéris mes amis, je chéris mes souvenirs (memories), and so on, but he never said Je te chéris to his mistress, whom I knew well.
“The problem is partly that in English the word ‘friend’ can include people you hardly know. In French we have copain/copine (pal), camarade (buddy), petit ami (boyfriend), petite amie (girlfriend), but becoming an ami/e (true friend) takes time. Amant (lover), pas nécessairement!
“The Surrealists demanded l’amour fou (crazy love). You had to perdre la tête (lose your head), aimer à la fureur (rage with love). Un amour éperdu (distraught, frantic) is violent but not exactly happy….”
Indeed, the French like to be clairs, logiques, méthodiques, rationnels, solides, like the philosopher Descartes. But with so many words for passion, how can they say they’re cartésiens? Even Descartes had a love child with his Dutch cleaning lady. La maladie de l’amour is epidemic. Marguerite Duras in her 1986 novel La Maladie de la Mort considered it fatal. It certainly was for love-struck heroines like Chimène and Phèdre, (who die in well-known French tragedies: Corneille’s El Cid and Racine’s Phèdre). Bérénice (heroine of two tragedies, one by each playwright) lucked out. She was merely horribly unhappy.
Maybe that’s why Albert Cohen’s novel Belle du Seigneur has a cult following. It’s a 1,110-page satirical réquisitoire (indictment) of la grande passion. Its theme? La folie (the insanity, folly) of romantic love.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of France Today.
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