“The other side of words”: Crush


Is this flirting? No. A romance? Neither. An imaginary love? No more. If the term “crush” entered dictionaries in 2023 , we often find ourselves in difficulty when it comes to finding a synonym.

There is something vague about “crush”, “undefined in the definition” to use the words of Mehdi, one of the young people met for my investigation entitled Crush. Fragments of the new love discourse , something which therefore takes us back to all these contemporary questions around love, the foundations of the couple , the place given to it or even the spaces of romantic encounters.

Even though it only arrived about ten years ago among French teenagers, the term “crush” is old. A dictionary of American slang traces its etymology from Old French to English in the 14th century  . We find it much later, at the end of the 19th century in the United States . Researchers who have worked on the university archives that were being created at the time, particularly on student diaries, show that the term is completely part of student folklore .

At the end of the 19th century  , a first-year American student must have a crush on a higher-level student. A shift took place at the turn of the 20th century  : crush was then pathologized, articles were published to alert mothers of the dangers their daughters ran in having crushes, presented as paths to lesbianism, posing a risk for the natality. This moment of change is the first trace of a massive use of the term “crush” in relation to the sentimental lives of young people, which then flourishes in American popular culture, particularly in song.

Behind the vagueness inherent in crush, interviews with adolescents bring out a certain number of underlying rules: the infatuation must not last too long, it must not be too intense and, at the end of high school, or at least from the student period, we are supposed to move on. To summarize it in a few words, we can say that crush is “an attraction which is intended to remain hidden from the person concerned”.

If there is a secret dimension to the crush, this secret is shared with a group of friends. As in mourning, of which Marcel Mauss wrote that it is “the obligatory expression of feelings” , crush is part of a collective grammar, which only makes sense because it is shared. We talk about it, we learn to decode its signs, we give it nicknames, we develop strategies.

The crush is sustained, maintained, and even sometimes provoked by discussions. It establishes group cohesion while constituting a cultural practice, which was not the case with the “crushes” of previous generations. Previously, you could talk about your favorites with your friends, but the obsession – and the discussions – stopped when you got home, or hung up the phone, in a time when you paid the bills. conversations according to their duration.

While the flirting of the 1960s was established in culture by the world of song or shows like Hello Friends (which promoted this new relationship where we can walk hand in hand, go to the cinema or go dancing with a person who is not necessarily the one you are going to marry) the crush is maintained by social networks, the place of multiple investigations or games with memes and by Netflix series.

On Netflix moreover, note that the notion of crush is reappropriated by a whole series of queer films and series . It’s as if a queer romance was authorized by this term, as if it finally allowed access to queer stories that don’t stop at painful stories or the difficulties of coming out. Crush is also a way of exploring the field of possibilities.

Author Bio: Christine Détrez is a Professor of Sociology at ENS de Lyon