Our Favorite Way to Talk about Love

Do you have a crush? Are you on fire? Is he hot? We use metaphors all the time to describe how we feel about love.

couple drinking tea
(Image credit: Vstock/UpperCut Images)

It's in English class that most Americans learn about metaphors — and yet metaphoric language abounds in our daily life. Just think of the word crush: That's a metaphor to describe the overwhelming, crushing sensation we feel when we really, really (no I mean really) like a person. Even email is a metaphor: It's comparing the digital communications that come into our "inbox" on the screen to the envelopes delivered to our homes every day by the postal service.

Thinking of just how many metaphors we use on a daily basis can be pretty fun — if you're slightly geeky like me, anyway. Or if you're slightly geeky like James Geary, the author of a new book called, I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.

In time for Valentine's Day, I asked James to tell us a little about the metaphoric language of love. Here's what he had to say.

What's the most common metaphor for love?

In a word, heat.

Think of "Heat Wave," a song by Martha & The Vandellas that first hit the charts in 1963, whose lyrics have been branded into the minds of millions since:

Whenever he calls my name

Sounds so soft, sweet, and plain

Right then, right there

I feel this burning pain

Has high blood pressure got a hold of me

Or is this the way love's supposed to be?

It's like a heat wave … burning in my heart!

When you think of how many other famous love songs — like "Light My Fire" by The Doors, Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," and Elvis Presley's "Burning Love" — use the heat metaphor, you'll get a better sense of just how common it is.

But what metaphors for love do we use in daily speech?

Heat is still quite popular when we're talking to each other. Consider everyday expressions like, "He's so hot," and "There was a real spark between us."

What metaphors for love do we find in poetry?

The most famous poetic metaphor for love, which we find in Shakespeare, also involves heat. It's Romeo's line about his inamorata: "Juliet is the sun."

Juliet is definitely not the sun — not literally, at least. Nevertheless, she shines. Romeo is inexorably drawn by her gravitational pull. She is the center of his universe, she radiates heat, and her brightness can burn. We understand Juliet much more vividly than if Shakespeare had taken a more literal approach, such as "What light through yonder window breaks? Oh, it's Juliet, applying her shiny night cream."

But why do we associate love with heat?

Martha Reeves (the lead singer of the Vandellas) hints at the answer when she asks, "Has high blood pressure got a hold of me / Or is this the way love's supposed to be?" Love and other intense emotions, such as anger, raise pulse and blood pressure, increase muscle tension, and stimulate sweat glands, making us feel hotter. Plus, the brain areas that process physical warmth also process psychological warmth, forming a link between body and mind. This link is so strong, in fact, that people who feel emotionally excluded (people who have been given the "cold shoulder") give lower estimates of a room's temperature than people who feel socially included.

The link between heat and love also explains why red is the color of romance. Red is associated with fire, so red lipstick, red dresses, red sports cars, and red hearts for Valentine's Day are all used as metaphorical signals of hot stuff.

Can you tell us about some love metaphors that don't involve temperature?

Loved ones can be missing pieces ("My better half") or burdens ("My ball and chain") or bright spots ("He's the light of my life"). And relationships can be journeys ("Our love is a rollercoaster ride") or physical needs ("I'm starved for affection"). Returning to Martha and the Vandellas's hit, love can also be "quicksand," so that the more you fight it, the deeper in you get.