The Language of Love – Can Anyone Understand it?  

Written by Megan Crutchley

From about the first millennium in Europe, courting was defined by the codes of chivalry. When it came to love, nothing was explicit, and marriages were considered more of a political affair and bargain than anything else. But this doesn’t mean the people of Europe did not experience desire. Due to the way society repressed sexual passion, people came up with new and creative ways to express themselves implicitly. From the beauty patches of Dutch society, the fan language of the French and the flower language of the Victorians, people were at no shortage of ways to do so. However, how much did people truly use these languages and to what extent did others understand them?  

One of the earliest examples of secret symbols to express the way one felt was through beauty patches. These have been immortalised in depictions of people from the late 1700’s by shows like Horrible Histories, but what did they really mean? There are conflicting accounts as to whether the placement on the face was meant to depict something about the wearer’s emotions, or if they were truly used to enhance a person’s beauty. They were used by both men and women, and it was said the black fabric used was to serve the purpose of contrasting the whiteness of the wearers skin. Although they may have initially been used to express oneself, their reputation quickly fell from favour. It was seen as a vanity, and they began to be used to cover up skin blemishes. For example, there were many soldiers known to wear them to hide battle scars, and so they could be associated with the wearer’s heroic nature. At the same time, however, they were used to hide smallpox scars, and someone covered in beauty patches could be sexually promiscuous, as they could be used to cover up lesions as a result of sexually transmitted infections. They were recommended in some writings as remedies for ailments, and so their appearance in some Dutch paintings can be explained away for this reason as it was said that, when placed on either side of the temple, they could alleviate headaches.  

Another type of love language which has been popularised by television is that of fans. It is quite romantic to imagine women confessing their love through a flick of the wrist to their lovers from across crowded rooms, but it seems as if the language did not work in practise. In a pamphlet written decoding the language of fans, over two dozen meanings are given to the fan’s placements and movements. It is unlikely, due to the trivialities of this, that men would really bother to learn their meanings. However, we know the publishing of this leaflet, by a fan seller in France called Duvelleroy, was a success and resulted in skyrocketing sales of fans again, after they had fallen out of favour during the French Revolution. Therefore, a marketing ploy by a fan maker resulted in the language being invented, and although women in the nineteenth century seemed quite taken with it, their confessions of love fell on deaf ears.  

The fate of the famed flower language of the Victorians is much like that of fans. Although it seems like a perfect way for the sexually repressed courting couple of the Victorian era to express their passions for one another, the complications and nuances with learning the language made it quite impractical. If one thing was wrong with the flower – for example, it was unopened, or had no leaves, or was held in the wrong place – the thing it communicated would change completely. As well as this, there were different volumes that one could consult in order to determine the meaning of the flowers; however, these volumes could conflict each other also. It is because of these reasons that there is no evidence that this language was ever taken seriously, despite how romantic the idea of it is.  

Therefore, the impracticalities involved in communication through symbols and objects never really replaced the language of humans – a smile can mean so much more than a carnation over the breast, or the dropping of a fan.  


​​Hearn, K. (2015). ‘Revising the Visage: Patches and Beauty Spots in Seventeenth-Century British and Dutch Painted Portraits’. Huntington Library Quarterly , 809-823. 

​Starp, A. (2018, April 24). The Secret Language of Fans. Retrieved from Sotheby’s: 

​Whyman, J. (2021, January 3). The Victorian Language of Flowers Nipped in the Bud. Retrieved from Pre-Raphaelite Flowers: 

Featured image credit: A young couple sit on a sofa holding hands while she coyly holds a fan up to her face. Coloured wood engraving by Rud. Rössler. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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