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when in rome, have a romance

“Wise men say only fools fall in love/but I can’t help falling in love with you.” (Lyrics from Can’t Help Falling in Love, written by Weiss, Peretti, and Creatore) Falling in Love, Falling in Love Again, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, When I Fall in Love … The song titles featuring the act of “falling in love” are seemingly endless. But hold on a second, lovers. Isn’t “falling” a bad thing to do?”

My friend David posed this dilemma to me recently and he inquired whence came the expression “falling in love.”

So I checked the OED to see if it could provide an adequate lexicographic answer to David’s query. The phrase “falling in love” is first cited in 1423. At first, though, one didn’t merely tumble “in love” but rather into “love’s dance.” The citation comes from James 1-The King’s Quire and states, “So fare I falling into love’s dance.” It took at least 100 more years for the phrase to be shortened to “falling in love.” This phrase has endured ever since as the quintessential expression of the dizzy loss of control of the lovestruck.

By the way, the concept of a fall into love is hardly restricted to English. In French and many other languages, love also causes a tumble and in the case of Icelandic, it captures you. The OED has many definitions of the word “fall,” but two in particular are instructive of the sense implied in “falling in love.” Fall (noun) is defined as “a succumbing to temptation, a lapse into sin or folly.” It is first used in this sense in 1225. Fall (verb) is defined as “to yield to temptation, to sin.”

Legend has it that the romance associated with Valentine’s Day descends from a custom in ancient Rome. On the eve of the Feast of Lupercalia, which began on February 15, the names of maidens were written on pieces of paper and placed in a jar. These slips were then plucked by young men who would partner with their selection for the duration of the festival. Valentine’s Day owes its name to Saint Valentine who was beheaded in the 2nd century A.D. for marrying couples counter to the orders of Emperor Claudius II.

Etymologically speaking, when a young lover is imbued with romance, the debt isn’t to love, but to Rome. The word “romance” comes from the Old French term Romans, a derivation of Romanus, “Roman.” The term was used to refer to the local dialects of Latin (which later became the Romance languages) and was used to differentiate them from official Latin. The practice arose in France of writing entertaining stories in the more popular spoken language and the term romans was used to refer to these adventurous tales. It was in this sense that the word was borrowed into Middle English. Because many of these stories in both English and French dealt with courtly love, “romance” came to mean simply a “love story” and eventually developed the sense of a “love affair.”

Seeing that Shakespeare is the greatest word progenitor in the history of the English language, it is not surprising that several love words are associated with the Bard. He seems to have coined the term “love affair” in Three Gentlemen of Verona in 1591, where Valentine says: “I part with thee, confer at large of all that may concern thy love affairs.” There is an obscure reference to “love letters” in the OED in 1240 but Shakespeare popularized the term in Merry Wives of Windsor when Mrs. Page asks: “I ‘scaped love-letters in the holiday-time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them?”

Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe is credited with the first usage of “love at first sight” in Hero and Leander in 1593: “Where both deliberate the love is slight; who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?”

Happy, Valentine’s Day, everybody. Enjoy the dance.

Howard’s book Strange Bedfellows: The Private Life of Words is being published in March 2010.



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