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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
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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
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Here's an origin of "hating on". –  Hugo Jul 29 '13 at 11:14

6 Answers 6

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
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@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

It's a slang term, which loosely means to shower someone (or something) with attention. A group of three sisters that I rode horses with when I was very young used the term quite often, as did every member of their family. For example, if a horse was being especially biddable, they would say "He done good! Be sure and love on 'im!", or "I just sat on 'im for a while and rubbed and loved on 'im." I'm not absolutely positive where the girls were from originally, but I believe they mentioned Alabama or Arkansas. This was in Northwest Oregon that I was acquainted with them, during the 70's and early 80's.

At the risk of sounding ridiculously judgmental, the phrase, for me, has a bit of a backwoods, low rent, and/or "white trash" (for lack of a better description) connotation. It has been many years now since I last spoke with any of the girls or their family, so I can't say for certain if those undertones come from the fact that the only times that I've ever heard it used, it was usually by the poorest of folk back then, or if it stems from my memory of those girls and their family in particular. Perhaps the phrase originates in the South, where the family itself had originated from.

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I agree with professor_feather -- I have definitely seen this in the Christian community. Based on the content, I expect your examples are influenced by this -- probably from a church bulletin or Christian non-profit.

The Dictionary of Christianese gives a definition that matches my experience:

http://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/love-on/

love on v. phr. Sometimes also just love on. To demonstrate care, concern, or platonic affection for someone by using words, actions, or non-sexual physical touch.

This source tracks usage in Christian books as early as 1993, though it was probably in use before then.

1993 Mize The Church Without Spot or Wrinkle 80 : Treating them like royalty is only a small part of what God has planned for you when you invite them over for dinner. It’s a chance for you to love on them. Did you know that agape love never fails? Love on them like you would Jesus.

Note the reference to the Greek word agape. Put simply, Greek has several words which are translated as love. This sometimes has bad results when translating from Greek to English:

Consider John 21:15-17

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love (philia) you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." 16 Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." 17 The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love (philia) me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love (philia) me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love (philia) you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.

I've marked the different words that are translated as "love". The English version seems to imply that Jesus is asking the same question, even after getting the answer, but the Greek shows that Peter didn't really answer the first two questions -- he used a different word.

While it wouldn't make sense to change the translation to "*Simon son of John, do you love on me?", Christians use "love on" to refer to that idea of agape love. While it might not exactly match the Greek definition, agape is often described in Christian messages as "love, the verb." It contrasts with the intellectual philia and primal eros -- it is love displayed through actions. zeromus wrote this in the comments, which is a good summary, I think:

You literally can't love on the homeless without working in the streets (but you can love them from a sanitary distance by writing someone a check).


Those were reasons why the Christian community embraced the word, but I think Anita Valium is correct about the etymology. Commenters in the Dictionary of Christianese also agree that the phrase is Southern in origin. The South also has a large Christian community, so it has spread from there.

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Early instances of 'loving on [someone]'

The phrase "loving on [someone]" appears to have arisen fairly recently. A Google Books search turns up an instance from 1914, but it is put in the mouth of a native speaker of Arabic, for whom English is something of a language adventure. From Lucille Van Slyke, "Glad Rags," in Pearson's Magazine (1914):

"Take, hard-hearted one!" she joked in easy Arabic, but let her voice trail into "Ameercan En'leesch." "I got a bounce tp-day." The soft flood of Leila's condolences she brushed aside with a wave of her cigarette. "It is as always," she scolded pettishly. "I do work like the wife of the devil but always the boss gets a loving on me. In Beirut—in Alexandria—in N'york! It is ever the same. The ones that would marry with me is cheap skates! The ones that would not—bah!" Her white teeth shut vindictively, she sprang up with a gesture of dismissal. "They is all fools. I, Miladeh Khouri——" she corrected herself naïvely, "Milly Kelly, I is not a cinch!"

The next match is from 44 years later in dialogue involving a rustic native U.S. English speaker, from a story in Ladies Home Journal (1948) [combined snippets]:

"Up to now, the babe had just laid in my arms a-looking at him. But when he leant forrerd, it all of a sudden raised up, with a little joyful cry, and grabbed at him—yes, actually wanting to leave me for him! He tuck it, and when it hugged his neck, busted out a-crying something awful behind its head, whilst I just sot there dumfoundered, watching at it loving on him."

The expression really began to pick up steam (in print sources included in the Google Books database) in the 1970s, perhaps influenced by versions of the expression "Lay a little loving on me." In the spring of 1973, Eddie Floyd (who may be best remembered for his original version of "Knock on Wood") released a single with the title "Lay Your Loving on Me" for Stax Records, and three years earlier Robin McNamara had released a single called "Lay a Little Loving on Me". In the August 22, 1970, issue of Billboard magazine, yet another similar song title is mentioned as a Best Pick in the country music category by the program director at KFAY radio in Fayetteville, Arkansas: David Wilkins's "Put a Little Loving on Me."

The "loving on" formulation also appears in James Whitehead, Joiner (1971), in a scene set in Hattiesburg, Mississippi:

"You from Texas?" and then there's the clatter of the little plate and sounds of furious lovemaking that cause me to imagine exploding hooks and eyes and also an extraordinary flak of girdle parts. For a moment I couldn't tell whether Fred was loving on her or beating her up for being from Texas and teasing him, but finally I satisfied myself it was only a fizgig and her fellow having fun.

The next verifiable match is from Bruce McGinnis, The Fence (1979), a novel set in north-central Texas [snippet view]:

...him when no one else could have just by being a little kinder with him and loving on him a little more, what any brother would do for any other brother. Just by loving the fear and confusion out of him and saved him. But I was too busy with Annie to notice, and besides it doesn't make any difference now anyway.

Another instance from the U.S. South appears in the case of Hester v. State of Mississippi (an appellate decision released by the Mississippi State Supreme Court on February 13, 1985, but citing testimony given at the criminal trial of the defendant one or two years earlier):

Ernie's waitress, Linda Pigg, stated that she saw Winn in the bar shortly before 4:00 p.m. and that a woman approached Winn and started talking and "loving on him". Ms. Pigg saw them leave about 4:00 p.m. About two hours later, Ms. Pigg saw the same woman return alone.


Conclusions

The common feature of these early instances of "loving on [someone]" is that they appear to be set in Southern U.S. locales such as Mississippi and Texas, and in dialogue spoken by not especially well-educated people. The religious angle in usage of "loving on [someone]"—mentioned by a couple of answerers here—is apparent in some instances from the past 25 years or so, but not in the earliest examples.

In any event "loving on [someone]" in its modern sense appears to be several decades older than "hating on [someone]," as detailed in the EL&U question (and answers) Origin of 'hating on'.

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