What makes true love true? The concept of true love comes up so frequently in Shakespearean comedies, I started wondering about this question.
As a child growing up in a Disney culture, I had a lot of ideas about what true love meant. I thought of it as a destined, magical, partner-for-life kind of deal. I thought that in this context, the word “true” meant “opposite of false”– not faithful or sincere, necessarily. So when I looked up “true love” in the OED, I was surprised and fascinated to learn that “true love,” in Shakespeare’s time, meant “faithful love,” not “opposite of false love.”
And suddenly, I realized the concept of true love had been horribly mistranslated into modern culture. Now, when people talk about true love, there’s that sense of destiny and magic attached to it– the sense that you’re going to be attached to this one ideal person forever. As a result, true love is considered a superstitious, fairytale concept, and oftentimes, people who actually believe in it are considered naive.
But that was not the original concept of true love. All that true love meant was loyal and faithful love– not opposite-of-false, singular, destined, magical love.
Now that we have hundreds of years of mistranslations, all those interpretations have added and changed the meaning of true love. We can never go back to thinking that it’s just faithful love; we’re past the point of no return, linguistically. But I still think it’s fascinating to consider how the idea of true love has changed over the years, how our culture affected the meaning of the phrase, and how the phrase affected our culture, and how the way we talk about love affects our societal attitudes towards it.
And for the record, I’m going to keep thinking of true love as faithful love, even if all the Disney movies in the world say otherwise. I like that definition more.