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Lately I've been hearing friends talk about loving on people. Here's an example of the sort of thing they'll say:

We should be working in the streets and loving on the homeless.

Forge relationships and love on your friends!

You can find specific examples of this usage by typing "loving on" people into your favourite search engine.

I have done a bit of research on phrasal verbs and have read these two posts here on EL&U. While they are certainly interesting, they don't quite answer my questions:

  1. What is the origin of loving on or to love on? Could it have been popularized by people who thought that loving or love weren't active enough for the context? (Loving on seems most frequently used in a religious context, especially when referring to good works.)

  2. Of what use is the preposition on? It doesn't seem to change the meaning much—you can't physically love on somebody in the sense they're describing—and I've only seen or heard it used in contexts where love by itself would suffice.

I ran a Google ngram with input love_VERB on, although I can't say for sure whether that's helpful.

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In reply to your last sentence. "Love_verb on" doesn't make sense. You need to write multiple phrases such as: love moves on, love goes on, love carries on, etc. Verbs that collocate with the preposition, on. This has a list of verb equivalents to "go on". I don't know how much this will help answer your question but it might, in part, explain for the ellipsis. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 7:19
@Mari-LouA Oh, I must've misread the help section of the Google ngrams section. I'll try to figure out a better way to search. (I was mostly using it to see if I could find an approximate date of origin.) –  user22138 Jul 26 '13 at 11:45
I don’t have any reliable sources for this, so I’ll write it as a comment rather than an answer. This appears to me to be a recent coinage, probably more recent than its antonym ‘hate on’. Both, I think, were born from Internet usage and meme, and I’ve always understood them to be more broad, generic terms of behaviour, rather than actual feelings. ‘Hating on something’ does not just mean that you hate, but that you active behave in a way that makes it obvious that you have a negative attitude towards it. ‘Loving on something’, obviously, just means the opposite. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 26 '13 at 14:09
@JanusBahsJacquet Smart insight. I had forgotten about the usage of "hating on". It might be impossible to track down an exact origin date, but this is a good theory. –  user22138 Jul 26 '13 at 14:19
Here's an origin of "hating on". –  Hugo Jul 29 '13 at 11:14

3 Answers 3

From John Dryden's 1700 Palamon and Arcite (a translation of The Knight's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales)...

So thou, if fortune will thy suit advance,
Love on, nor envy me my equal chance

Two guys both fancy the same girl; less poetically, the speaker is saying they both have the right to try their luck and love on (i.e. - continue to "love").

My guess is Dryden's love = pursue your suit (archaically, make love to her). But you could just as easily interpret it as experience feelings of love for her. The point is there have always been contexts where (verb) love can be followed by on.

But I don't think there will be any "acceptable" instances of (verb) love on [object of love], in the sense of being considered "grammatical" by any significant proportion of Anglophones.

OP's two instances aren't really the same. The first [mistakenly] substitutes on for towards (AmE toward), probably echoing preceding in the streets. The second is just a quirky "slogan" format.

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Interesting reference! One thing: I'm not quite sure what the difference between my two instances is. Would you mind elaborating on the difference between "we should be… loving on the homeless" and "… love on your friends"? –  user22138 Jul 26 '13 at 10:19
(I see them both as cases where the preposition could just as easily be dropped—as I said above, I don't see what it's adding.) –  user22138 Jul 26 '13 at 10:21
@longstreth: If you discard on in the first one you shift the meaning (just as if you discard preceding in). There's usually a difference between loving someone and being loving towards them. The first means you're infatuated with them (or in more casual use, you really like them). The second simply means you act affectionately, in a nurturing way towards them. I'm somewhat speculating on the meanings of your examples, because they're not the product of careful competent speakers, so they're effectively just drivel anyway. –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 '13 at 16:30
Ah, I see what you're saying. And yes, I've mostly heard this used loosely in casual conversations, so maybe it's too tough to pin down. Perhaps it's an unanswerable question. But nice answer. –  user22138 Jul 26 '13 at 17:08
@longstreth: Bear in mind lots of people truly are somewhat "linguistically challenged". My first Google result for "be loving on them" is this in Yahoo Answers: Will Nancy Pelosi and the other leftists still be loving on them socialist agitator protestors once {blah blah}?. The guy continues with They done creating a sanitation nightmare and over a thousand of them hab been arrested. Seriously, how much can we expect to learn by analysing neologistic speech patterns from people with such limited verbal skills? –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 '13 at 19:48

I occasionally listen to born-again preachers (since I need it more than most), and I've heard this usage for some years. Many of the people using it are intelligent, they are choosing to speak creatively to make a point. I suspect, but don't know for sure, that many such flourishes derive from the black churches in the U.S. The rhetorical poetry of black pastors was such that there has been controversy over whether Dr. King was plagiarizing some of his phrases, or "sampling" them in a spirit of fair use. I doubt that "love on" goes back that far, but I suspect it predates the Internet.

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I have heard the term plenty of times among my hippie friends. I suppose that the verb to "love on" is simply the loosened-up, new-agey kids' version of the term to "dote on" someone, combined with the common saying of "putting your love on" someone. The former has been around a long time, the latter more like since the seventies. There doesn't necessarily have to be an identified origin for every phrase. Although it's satisfyingly tidy to identify an author, many ideas, especially ones that are a simple combination of two very similar ones, arise organically and independently, multiple times. Through repeated usage they might gain recognition, even before they're published. I have heard the phrase used as follows:

"I felt so lucky -- your cat was loving on me for a whole hour this morning"

(That's a verbatim quote from my roommate)

"My boyfriend brought home flowers last night, so I started loving on him, hard, to let him know he finally did something right."

Honestly it sounds ever-so-slightly naughty, or even just gross -- but hey, why not? -- it's a new millennium and language has to evolve, doesn't it?

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Also the "hating on" origin is spot on. It's simply the opposite- quite a simple invention. Likely authored by lots of people simultaneously. –  Christopher Buehler Jul 11 at 4:22

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