How did crush come to be used to mean "an intense but usually short-lived infatuation"?
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This is covered quite thoroughly in a column in The Globe and Mail by Warren Clements. Summarizing:
The 1884 date is confirmed via etymonline:
A relevant entry from the Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang by Eric Partridge read:
There are a number of other variants and phrases based on mash with similar connotations.
ODO's entry for masher corroborates this sense:
(Unless the OED differs drastically from the ODO in this matter, the origin stated above contradicts Clements' claim that the OED does not subscribe to this theory.)
I can follow the "mash" to "crush" connection, but both the Romani and "spoony" etymologies for "mash" sound like stretches to me. I think it's more likely that "mash" is a derivation of "pash," the term school novels from the 1880s-1940s use for crushes, obviously short for "passion."
In Madame Bovary (1856), Flaubert has a passage in Chapter five, Part two:
That could be a likely candidate for the origin of the word. It also seems more in concert with the way we use it today (as opposed to mash, which can mean the act of love making). Many in France and America were aware of the book (since it was so scandalous), and it may have seeped into the language around that time, possibly playing a role in Isabella Maude Rittenhouse's use of it later in 1884.
** However, Madame Bovary was translated into English in 1857, but that version is lost and was never published. The first published version (from which the above quote is taken) was published in 1886. I still think this is a possibility. In French the phrase reads "Le refoulait", "refoulait" translated directly means "repress", but with the "Le" added, it becomes "crushed".