Loretta Barnard

How Much Has the Language of Love Changed Over the Years?

The act of love might remain unchanged through the centuries, but has our way that we approach it changed? 


Back in the day, finding a life partner was a lot simpler than it is today, mainly because someone else chose your partner for you. Marriages were arranged for dynastic or political reasons and to bring money or status into a family. Love rarely entered the equation and everyone was well aware of their marital duties which primarily consisted of ensuring the continuity and prosperity of the family line.

Matchmakers were often engaged to bring young people together. Matchmakers typically checked family backgrounds, whether each partner was above reproach, in good health, and whether they seemed likely to be compatible. Once again, love was secondary to suitability.

As time went on, young people inevitably wanted to marry for love, so finding a partner became more difficult. Where could you meet that special someone? You could be introduced by a friend, colleague, or relative or more likely you attended particular social events in the hope of catching the eye of an attractive candidate. In many cultures, young people had little social freedom and it was considered sinful for a girl and a boy to meet unchaperoned. So places where young people could congregate were important if the quest for a mate was to be achieved. Parties, dinners, dances, sporting events, religious services – no opportunity was wasted at these “meat markets” or “monkey parades.”

In the twentieth century, lonely people might have employed the services of a dating agency, a precursor to the dating apps now available. These apps allow you to check out multiple candidates before committing to a meeting and, rather than have to sit through a few turgid hours before being able to politely skedaddle because you made a poor choice, you can simply “swipe left” if you don’t fancy someone. The terms “swipe right” (indicating approval) and “swipe left” (disapproval) are now accepted phrases, especially among Millennials.

Moving on. Once you’ve pinned down the potential object of your affection, how do you let them know you’re interested? Flirting is the age-old answer. There’s eye contact and coy smiles and in previous centuries there were tangible things you could do, such as “dropping the handkerchief.” Social convention dictated a girl couldn’t say anything or write anything to a boy in case she damaged her reputation, but “dropping the handkerchief” gave him the green light to pursue her romantically.

If a girl did that today, first, it would likely be a tissue and no one’s going to pick that up and, second, the boy might simply assume that she’s either careless or a litterbug. So that’s out.

Flirting can be fun, exciting, and even a little mysterious. In Victorian times, the giving of certain flowers was a form of advanced flirting, so sending your lover a bunch of daisies meant you’d be loyal forever. Holding a fan over your heart meant you were in love with the person you gazed at. Standing under a balcony serenading your girl with a chanson d’amour meant you were ready to pop the question.

Lovers also once exchanged billet-doux. It was very romantic: these love letters were imbued with sweet talk and repressed ardor. Perhaps a portrait or a snapshot would be included in a locket or miniature frame, so the recipient could moon over his or her beloved and let their imaginations run wild.

These days, many lovers prefer to “sext,” cutting back on the romantic lovey-dovey chitchat and cutting straight to descriptions of carnal pleasures, often accompanied by photographs of the relevant body parts. What says “romance” more? A photograph of your sweetheart? Or a dick pic? I’m told that these days messages like “do U want 2 do it?” are considered flirtatious. Sounds a bit like the classic Australian pickup line, “Wanna root?” (be still my beating heart).


A “thirst trap” may be involved. That’s when someone posts sexy photos of themselves on social media to show their ex-partners what they’re missing out on.


Dating terminology changes over time. Men used to woo their women, paying court to them, complimenting their beauty, brains, and whatever it took to win them over. “Lovemaking” meant that a man was making googly eyes at his intended and whispering “sweet nothings” in her ear. It was only in the twentieth century that the term “lovemaking” came to signify sex.

In twentieth-century Australia, young people “went with” each other. It was common to say that a couple was “going round” or “going out.” The American term “date” didn’t really become popular in Australia until maybe the early 1980s or thereabouts. Couples would have a pash or a snog, if they were English. Sometimes they “went all the way.” These days, young people “hang out” with one another because they don’t want to put pressure on the relationship by going on something as potentially significant as a “date.”

Ever heard of “breadcrumbing”? It’s where someone flirts on social media by sending teasing messages and liking someone’s posts, but with no intention of ever asking that person out. It’s a Millennial term for leading someone on. Of course, a couple may just consider themselves “friends with benefits.”

Here’s another decidedly unromantic term: the “catch and release” method of dating, when someone pursues a partner, they “hook up,” but later that partner is effectively dumped for a bigger fish (better partner).

At the other end of the spectrum, if a relationship looks like it might be serious, modern couples may have a “DTR” talk, which means “defining the relationship,” establishing parameters and what have you.

Now, the sad part – when relationships end. There are break-ups, dumpings, conscious uncouplings. Last century, a man may have received a “Dear John” letter. These days, break-ups are often effected via social media: a “Dear John” email or text, but it can be harsher.

In the past, if someone decided to dump their partner without actually going to the trouble of telling them, they’d use avoidance: crossing the street to sidestep the dumpee and not answering the telephone, namely a fixed landline with the headset attached to the phone by a cord. (Millennials may remember such a device from their childhoods.) This effective but very immature method of breaking up with someone is now known as “ghosting,” which consists of unfriending the dumpee on social media, deleting their contact details from your phone and laptop, and refusing their calls or messages.

To add insult to injury, a “thirst trap” may be involved. That’s when someone posts sexy photos of themselves on social media to see how many “likes” they can muster up but also to show their ex-partners what they’re missing out on. It takes bitterness to a whole new level.

Words change over the years and new terms are always entering the lexicon, but human nature is constant. One generation’s token of affection is another generation’s erotic selfie. Finding a significant other is an important search for most of us and how we go about this largely depends on the times in which we are born. But keep in mind that there’s nothing like a little romance to get hearts a-fluttering. Beats a dick pic every time.


Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is an Australian freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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