Words at Play

12 Words and Phrases for Romantic Relationships

Featuring mollusks, fire, birds, puppies, and a squeeze.


love words goo goo eyes

The term "goo-goo eyes" implies a foolishly sentimental, romantic, or amorous glance (as in "she made goo-goo eyes at him"), and its first appearance was caught in English in the late 19th century. It is believed to be an alteration of goggle, which is first seen as a verb meaning "to turn the eyes to one side or the other" in the 14th century. English writer Samuel Butler, in his 17th-century narrative poem Hudibras, tersely exemplifies use of the verb in the phrase "wink, and goggle like an owl" (after hours, you might also see people goggling). In time, goggle begins to be used as an adjective to mean "protuberant" or "staring" (as in "the close-up focused on the actor's enormous goggle eyes"), which brings into focus goggle-eyed in the 18th century. The related term googly-eyed is then envisioned, but not until circa 1900.

The plural form goggles was first sighted as a designation for a pair of protective glasses in the early 18th century. The slang term beer goggles, which refers to the effects of alcohol thought of metaphorically as a pair of goggles that alter a person's perceptions especially by making others appear more attractive than they actually are, was brewed in the 1980s.

love words blind hot date

The English word date in its temporal sense, in spite of semantic and phonetic similarity, has nothing to do etymologically with day but is descended from Latin dare, meaning "to give." In ancient Rome, the date of a letter was written in this manner: "Datam Romae Kal. Aprilis." (Translated: I gave [this letter] at Rome April 1—the kalends of April.) A later wording was data Romae, "given at Rome," instead of datam Romae, "I gave at Rome." Data, the past participle of Latin dare, had the feminine ending in this case because of its association with the noun epistula, meaning "letter." (The common word data, referring to facts or information is related: it is from Latin datum, meaning "something given," and, in turn, datus, the past participle of dare.) 

Data eventually came to name the time of writing or executing a letter or document. Anglo-French borrowed the word as date with the same meaning but also used it to denote any given point in time. The word was then borrowed into Middle English from Anglo-French. It was not until the 19th century that date began to be used for an appointment or engagement at a specified time. The word then came to signify romantic meetings, as in blind date, double date, and hot date. The extended sense of "a person with whom one has a romantic date or appointment" is a 20th-century extension.

love words blind date

Since the pupil is essential to vision, it was held to be something very precious. Thus, when you call someone or something the "apple of your eye," you are telling them that they are cherished. In the past, the idiom actually referred to the actual pupil of the eye because it was viewed as a round, solid object comparable to an apple.

Having carefully observ'd the Eyes of several Fishes … I found that the … Pupil or Apple of the Eye, was very flat, like those in Human Creatures.
Philosophical Transactions, 1705

The phrase is connected to the Bible, in which it appears in books of the Old Testament: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations. The first use of the phrase appears in Deuteronomy, which reads "He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye." A more literal translation of the original Hebrew biblical text is actually "little man of his eye," which probably refers to the reflection of oneself that one sees in the eye of another person. In early English translations of the Bible, however, the phrase appears as "apple of his eye." This probably developed from the Anglo-Saxon use of the word æppel for "pupil" as well as for "apple." Thus, the phrase developed into "apple of one's eye" and retained the meaning of something treasured.

love words apple of ones eye

A cockle is a mollusk that lives in a hinged, heart-shaped shell, similar to that of a scallop shell, which lends it the nickname "heart clam." In the 17th-century, writers began likening the human heart to the shape and valves of the mollusk, and eventually cockle came to refer to the heart itself—and, specifically, to its ventricles because the two larger of the heart's four chambers look something like a cockle, which was noted by the ancient Romans who called the ventricles cochleae cordis (cochlea means "snail" in Latin). Additionally, the Latin genus name for the cockle is Cardium, which is related to the Greek word kardia, meaning "heart."

The heart has traditionally been regarded as the center of affection in a person, just as the spleen was once believed to be the center of anger. If something warms the cockles of a person's heart, it stimulates that center of affection, bringing "heartfelt" pleasure. A good meal, pleasant company, or anything "heartwarming" could conceivably "warm the cockles of your heart."

love words puppy love

The term puppy love is used for those romantic feelings of love that are felt between young people and are not considered to be real love by more experienced adults. It dates to the early 19th century, but puppy-lover used in similar context has been traced to the 17th century:

Harrigo: See, there they go; halt a little, and give them law enough; the Course will be the fairer. Thomaso: Not too much law, pray; consider, 'tis but a Puppy-lover that runs.
— Thomas Killigrew, Comedies and Tragedies, 1664

Puppy is from French poupée, meaning "doll," and it is etymologically connected to both puppet and pupil. Initially, it referred to a lady's lapdog; that sense was born in the 15th century. The current sense of "a young dog" appears in the next (the synonymous pup is a shortening of puppy). It is also in the 16th century that puppy is applied to "an inexperienced or naive young person":

Patrick the puppy put too much ink in my standish, and, carrying too many things together, I spilled it on my paper and floor.
— Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, 1711

In the 19th century, another term for "foolish love" was born from the name of an animal in the early stages of life, calf-love:

It's a girl's fancy—Just a kind o' calf-love—let it go by.
— Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia's Lovers, 1863

love words head over heels

Part of the appeal of this odd adverbial phrase suggesting a somersault is its lack of logic; the head is, after all, normally over the heels. It comes from the somewhat more logical phrase "heels over head," which is first recorded circa 1400. In time, that phrase gained figurative meaning referring to things becoming "topsy-turvy"—or being turned into a state of confusion or disorder:

Now by this time the house is heels o'er head. … For every thing was put in sic a steer.
— Alexander Ross, Helenore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess, 1768

The variant "head over heels" began to circulate in the 1600s, and it seems to have occurred through an error. Nevertheless, common use has made it acceptable, and it has superseded its predecessor. Besides referring to, in an illogical manner, a somersault or being upside down topsy-turvy, "head over heels" can mean "very much," "deeply," or "very much or deeply in love" which, in turn, led to phrases like "He is head over heels in love," "He fell head over heels for her," or "She went head over heels for him."

Other similar phrases that are used to communicate being deeply in love are "over head and ears" (or being "over head and ears in debt" because of love) and "head over ears," both of which date to the 1500s—for example:

Don't we all know that it must be a match—that they were over head and ears in love with each other from the first moment they met? Did not I see them together in Devonshire every day, and all day long; and did not I know that your sister came to town with me on purpose to buy wedding clothes?
— Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, 1811

Warmth suddenly enveloped the child, so that she was head over ears in love, but distrusting the thing as a mature person does.
— Doris Lessing, "Old John's Place," 1951

love words heartthrob

The word heart began pulsating in Old English as the name for the organ in the chest that pumps blood through veins and arteries. In the 16th century, the noun throb began beating. (The verb was already palpitating in the sense of "to pulsate or pound with abnormal force.") Early uses of the noun include references to spasms of pain (especially in childbirth) or the catching of breath, or even a sigh.

Still as she stood, she heard with grievous throb / Him grone, as if his hart were peeces made, / And with most painefull pangs to sigh and sob….
— Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene,  1590

The verb senses associated with the heart were heard in the 14th century. 

The term heartthrob originally referred, unsurprisingly, to the pulsation of the heart in the 18th century and later to sentimental emotion. In early 20th-century American English, heartthrob named a person or thing that aroused romantic feelings or with whom one was infatuated; nowadays, it is chiefly applied to an attractive and usually young, famous man. 

Heart also has an intimate relationship with sweet. Although heart has been openly paired (grammatically, as an open compound) with various other adjectives connoting love (such as dear and darling) since Old English, it began an intimate relationship with sweet, first in hyphenated form and then as a closed compound, as in the pet name sweetheart for a person you love very much, in the 16th century.

love words lovebirds

The lovebird is a species of parrot of Africa and Madagascar that is noted for its pretty colors and its affection towards its mate. Common traits of the bird include a short tail, a diminutive and slightly chunky body, and prominent eye-rings. In the 19th-century, people familiar with the bird and its habits began to use its name for the partners in a loving relationship.

Mr. Guppy, going to the window, tumbles into a pair of love-birds, to whom he says in his confusion, "I beg your pardon, I am sure."
— Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1853

Love nest—referring to a place, such as an apartment, for an amorous rendezvous—is an early 20th-century construction.

love words carry a torch

The idiom "to carry a torch for someone" was lit in the early 1900s, and it refers to being in love, especially without reciprocation—that is to say, experiencing unrequited love. The phrase also gave light to torch song and torch singer around the same time. Torch songs are sad or sentimental songs about love and romance, and their name comes from the metaphor of a flame of love (which also is applied in "to carry a torch") that still burns inside the singer for another whose feeling of love has extinguished.

An early use connecting the torch to love is in Irish dramatist Richard Sheridan's epilogue to his 1775 comedy of manners The Rivals:

The Lover's mind would ask no other school; / Sham'd into sense—the Scholars of our eyes, / Our Beaux from Gallantry would soon be wise; / Would gladly light, their homage to improve, / The Lamp of Knowledge at the Torch of Love!

Torch itself was ignited by Latin torqua, meaning "something twisted," which makes sense since a torch is a stick twisted around an inflammable material at its head to make a flambeau. Torqua is also related to torture and torque. It's true: love can hurt sometimes—and be twisted.

love words turtledove

The turtledove is a species of a migratory European pigeon that winters in North Africa. Its body is reddish brown; its head, blue-gray; and its tail is marked with a white tip. The use of the term turtle in this pigeon's name is derived from the echoic sound of its plaintive cooing, which sounds like "turr, turr, turr." The bird has no association with the shelled reptile.

Though not so common nowadays, the bird's name was applied to people as a term of endearment as early as the 16th century, much like dove and turtle once were.

Fare you well, my dove!
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ca. 1600

My garden is full of tall cypress trees, upon the branches of which several couple of true turtles are saying soft things to one another from morning till night.
— Lady M. W. Montagu, letter, 1 Apr. 1717

love words shack up

The noun and verb shack are both 19th-century American slang. The noun is suspected to be a back-formation of the dialectal term shackly, meaning "rickety" (as in "shackly houses or huts") and that is now chiefly heard in Southern regions of the United States. The original sense of the verb is "to live in a shack," and early uses referred to a group of bachelors or men engaged in some common activity, like fishing or camping, or job, like logging or mining, who live together for a period of time in—well—shacks or small, unglamorous buildings. 

The phrase "shack up" is first recorded in the early 20th century. Early uses imply cohabiting with another or just spending the night, say, at your mom's house:

I'm better off shacking up at my mum's. She got plenty food, plenty love, plenty money.
— Karline Smith, Moss Side Massive, 1994

Shack up quickly heated up, however, to the sense of cohabiting with a romantic partner and "spending the night" together in the explicit connotation of the phrase. 

Spring time is the best time … to break up. ... [S]pring is that time of year when the flowers bloom, and your relationship, well, doesn’t. Maybe you shacked up with them in the winter for some warm snuggles and cozy nights by the fire but that's long gone now.
— Marianne Garvey, Bravotv.com, 29 Mar. 2018

love words main squeeze

Squeeze has indicated gestures of friendship and affection in the forms of handshakes (or handclasps) and hugs since the 18th century. One's "main squeeze," however, was originally one's boss or any person in charge, and that sense goes back to late 19th-century American slang.

I went in and asked the main squeeze o' the works how much the sacque meant to him….
— George Ade, Artie, 1896

By the beginning of the 20th century, people began bragging about their "main squeeze"—that is, their primary partner in romance. 

Struggling with what to get your guy for Valentine's Day this year? We hear you. Men can be tough to shop for…. But it doesn't have to be! Somewhere between a box of candy hearts and hearts on boxer shorts, there's a way to show your main squeeze that you think he’s pretty great, without overwhelming him with something too cheesy. 
— Taylor Davies, Today.com, 5 Feb. 2019




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