adjective smit·ten \ ˈsmi-tᵊn \
deeply affected with or struck by strong feelings of attraction, affection, or infatuation
The month of February often conjures up the all too familiar images related to Valentine’s Day: heart-shaped chocolates and balloons, bouquets of flowers, and Hallmark cards passed between young children at school and between romantic partners. In the United States, Valentine’s Day is a day dedicated to celebrating love—often, to celebrate the state of being smitten.
I am interested in this particular word because, in addition to its form as an adjective, smitten is also the past participle of smite. Smite, a verb, has two definitions, the first of which is “to be strongly attracted to somebody or something,” or “to captivate.” In the context of this definition, the derivation of the adjective smitten is intuitive. However, smite’s second definition takes a dramatic 180° turn, from something soft to something harsh and violent: “to take,” or “to strike with a firm blow.”
According to Merriam-Webster, smite originates from a twelfth century Middle English word meaning to smear or defile; the dictionary likens it to an Old High German word with a similar meaning. As it relates to romantic love, this definition is almost paradoxical. Perhaps “captivate” or “take” make sense (Merriam-Webster’s example sentence cites being captivated by a woman’s beauty), but for this word to also be defined by violence produces a fascinating contradiction: why are the two linked?
To answer this question, we can look to another common Valentine’s Day symbol that stems from Greek and Roman mythology: the God of love, Cupid. Usually portrayed as a young and winged boy, Cupid is armed with a bow and arrow; anyone who is struck by one of his arrows, mortal or not, is overcome by affection and love. Cupid’s very existence takes into account both sides of smite’s definitions: the first being the gentle inspiration of love; the second being the violent mechanism by which love is inspired. In some depictions, he is wearing armor as he works to matchmake. This begs the question: does this interpretation fall into the softer definition of smite, suggesting that love is invincible or impenetrable? Or does it fall into the harsher one, likening love to war?
Perhaps these definitions cannot be parsed into a binary. Instead, perhaps they must be considered together, particularly in the context of romance, of love, and of relationships generally. In the past six months in the United States, there has been a massive eruption of reports of sexual misconduct, particularly regarding high-profile and powerful men. The catalyst was Ronan Farrow’s exposé on Harvey Weinstein in the New Yorker, and from it has stemmed a resurgence of activist Tarana Burke’s social media hashtag #MeToo. Now known as the MeToo movement, the premise is, according to Burke, to “promote empowerment through empathy” by sharing among women, particularly those who are vulnerable (for example, young women of color), the all too prevalent experience of sexual misconduct. Alyssa Milano, an actress who encouraged spreading the hashtag after the stories of Weinstein surfaced, explained it as follows: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
It is important to dissociate from love the type of behavior displayed by Weinstein (and many, many others). However, it is equally important to remember the duality of smite’s definition, and to remember Cupid’s bow and arrow, and armor when thinking about love and relationships as they exist today, particularly in the context of the MeToo movement. Those in positions of power have been forced to confront the issue of accountability, some for the first time, and these considerations will then hopefully trickle down into more of an awareness when it comes to fair and healthy relationships.
When one is smitten, one is, according to the word’s definition, “deeply affected” by feelings. It is imperative to take into account the depth of this impact. As the language suggests, relationships—and love—hold great power.