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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Pick the Word

About a month ago, a Russian schoolteacher asked me how American children celebrate Valentine's Day. I started to answer, but then bit my tongue as my head filled with images of crying children who received no Valentine's cards and of children resenting their parents for forcing them to send cutesy cards to teachers and classmates who they don't even like. Then I just told her that Valentine's Day is a grown-up holiday.

She shrugged and said, "That's O.K., we already have International Women's Day anyway." Now, I've spent enough years in Russia to know that there isn't very much of a connection between Valentine's Day and March 8, Mezhdunarodnyi zhenskyi den', except maybe the practice of being forced to give gifts to people you don't really like. However, since she saw a connection, I feel I can use the upcoming holiday as an excuse to say a few words about love, or lyubov'.

"Lyubov'" as one wag put it, "ditya illyuzii i odnovremenno mat' razocharovaniya" -- Love is the child of illusion and, at the same time, the mother of disenchantment. Or, to quote another, love is "edinstvennaya glupost' mudrogo i edinstvennaya mudrost' gluptsa" -- the only folly of the wise and the only wisdom of the foolish.

And it is no wonder Russians are confused about love. Consider, for example, the following words: lyubimets, lyubimchik, lyubovnik, lyubimyi, vozlyublennyi, vlyublyonnyi and lyubitel'. Which one should men use to begin the lyubovnoye pis'mo, or love letter, that they no doubt want to send to that special someone for Women's Day?

Lyubimets is definitely not the right choice, since it means "pet or favorite." As in, Potemkin was Catherine the Great's lyubimets. Lyubimchik is an even more humiliating form of the same concept, as in "teacher's pet." Lyubovnik (feminine form, lyubovnitsa) is the sexually charged member of this list, meaning "lover, paramour" (or "mistress") in the direct sense. By contrast, lyubimyi or lyubimaya is "lover" in the romantic sense, "dear, darling, beloved." It is an excellent choice for that lyubovnoye pis'mo. As is vozlyublennaya, which means "sweetheart, beloved" but is somewhat old-fashioned.

Vlyublyonnyi, from the verb vlyubit'sya (to fall in love), means "someone who is in love." It is something of a sad word in that it leaves open the question of whether that love is requited. Lyubitel', although a related word with the same root, is a red herring. It means "amateur or dilettante" and "fan or admirer," on lyubitel' sobak (he's a dog-fancier) or ya bol'shoi lyubitel' vashikh fil'mov (I am a big fan of your films).

And finally, here's one more definition: Lyubov' -- eto to, chto vedyot k zhenit'be, a eshchyo chashche, k razvody -- Love is the thing that leads to marriage or, still more often, to divorce. Happy Women's Day!