English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

Triangulating love

Q: I think it’s a misnomer to use “love triangle” for a situation in which someone has two love interests. Since I’ve never heard of a case where these two interests are in turn in love with each other, this would be a triangle that doesn’t close. Your thoughts?

A: Come now, use your imagination! The triangle here is a figurative one, not a literal one. The word “triangle” has been used this way since the early 20th century.

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines this figurative sense of the word: “A group or set of three, a triad. Esp. a
love-relationship in which one member of a married couple is involved with a third party; freq. as eternal triangle.”

The OED’s first example of “triangle” used this way is from the Dec. 5, 1907, issue of a London newspaper, the Daily Chronicle: “Mrs. Dudeney’s novel … deals with the eternal triangle, which, in this case, consists of two men and one woman.”

Here are some of the dictionary’s other amorously triangular examples:

1913: “The couples had rearranged themselves or were re-crystallizing in fresh triangles.” (From a story in Rudyard Kipling’s collection A Diversity of Creatures.)

1919: “For the modern drama, with its eternal triangle and so forth, he claims nothing, but that it proves adultery to be the dullest of subjects.” (Frank Harris on George Bernard Shaw, from Contemporary Portraits.)

1938: “He was much more substantial than in the days of our romantic triangle.” (From H. G. Wells’s novel Apropos of Dolores.)

The OED has a separate entry for “love triangle,” which it defines as “a state of affairs in which one person is romantically or sexually involved with two others (one or both of whom may not be aware of or complicit in the situation).”

If someone is involved with two others who are—in Oxford’s words—“complicit in the situation”—we have a ménage à trois. Would the triangle then be closed?

The first OED citation for “love triangle” is from the June 21, 1909, issue of the La Cross Tribune in Wisconsin: “Two yellow men and the pretty 20 year old missionary girl … form the love triangle the police have uncovered.”

Our favorite citation, however, comes from Ira Gershwin’s lyrics for the 1924 song Not So Long Ago:

“If you want my angle on the love triangle, / I’m for no front-headline stunts. / I hope to discover a husband and lover, / But both in the same man at once.”

So there you have it, our angle—and Ira Gershwin’s—on the love triangle.

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