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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

feeling the love

(2000’s | evangelese? new agese? | “do you feel it?”)

Really a complex of expressions here, of which this week’s headword is the most prominent; “not feeling the love” has also earned a spot in our lingo. Then there’s the new way to express discontent, “I’m not loving the . . .” which means “I don’t like it.” The McDonald’s slogan “I’m lovin’ it” has persisted for years and somehow manages to sound friendlier and less fraught than “I love it.” (Never underestimate the power of a good ad writer. But why not “I’m feeling the love”?) And don’t forget “love handles.” My guess is that “feeling the love” has a religious origin, specifically in America’s repetitive history of revivalism and pulpit oratory. It’s so easy to hear in my mind’s ear the braying preacher: “Are ya feelin’ the love of Jesus?” (Which now that I think about it could refer to Jesus’s love for you or your love for Jesus — nice ambiguity there.) It might come from something more new age, too, and it might even be therapese, though I don’t have any evidence. My usual sources don’t provide any clear origin story.

Like the McDonald’s slogan, “feeling the love” adopts the present progressive, combining an auxiliary verb with the present participle to denote current or ongoing action. It is generally used in group situations, whether a church congregation or a concert or Times Square on New Year’s Eve, where everyone present is of the same mind, their hearts of one accord. The crowd may be virtual in these days of social media, but the shared experience must still be heartwarming. In this sense of the phrase, those assembled generate the love themselves, manifested in feelings of warmth and unity. It’s hard to be sure, but the first distinct uses I found in LexisNexis dated from just before 2000. “Not feeling the love” means roughly the opposite; it’s what an isolated individual says when the crowd stands united against him. It really means “feeling the ill will,” or even menace. Both expressions now may come up anent one-on-one events, as in a partner in a relationship “no longer feeling the love,” but such uses have not become the norm yet.

Scrolling through LexisNexis results from the past month has given me the impression that “feeling the love” is starting to degenerate, moving closer to meaning “feeling real good” or just “feeling fine.” There’s still usually some appeal to shared experience invoked when one uses the expression, but my guess is that in ten years, it will be looser and less firmly associated with the defining characteristics limned above. Such a progression is one of the most common stories in linguistic evolution, and it doesn’t have to take a long time. Every now and then a new expression will stake out a narrow band of turf and remain on it through decades and vicissitudes, but slip and spread are much the more common fates. Precision is plowed under through carelessness or inadequate discernment; once an expression has undergone that process, there’s no going back. Sheer growth in use for a new expression doesn’t make up for increasing vagueness and dullness.

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