The first records of the word valentine in its modern sense come from the 1400s. Valentines and Valentine’s Day get their name from feast day of Saint Valentine, but there are at least two saints named Valentine, one of whom became a martyr around the year 270 CE. The name Valentine comes from a Latin word meaning “strength.”
There are many legends about it, but it’s ultimately unclear how Valentine’s Day became associated with the tradition of exchanging the affectionate gifts and love notes that we call valentines.
Who was the first to ask someone to be a valentine?
Here’s what we know about what it means when you make someone your Valentine.
Choosing a sweetheart on this day dates to 14th-century English and French court circles. The original connection between Saint Valentine and love is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales. In the poem “Parlement of Foules,” from circa 1381, he inspired lovers everywhere with these words, in which he connects the day to the widespread belief of the time that February 14 was the start of the mating season for birds:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd cometh there to chese his make.”
Where did the name Valentine come from?
Valentinus was a relatively common name in the late Roman Empire, and historical records point to several Christian martyrs named Valentinus. The earliest reference is to a saint buried on February 14 outside of Via Flaminia, in Italy. Not much is known about this saint.
Ancient Rome was a difficult place to be a Christian. According to some accounts, Valentinus the Presbyter was thrown in jail under the rule of Claudius II for officiating at Christian weddings. Presbyter means “priest” or “elder,” a person in leadership in the underground Christian community. While he was in jail, Valentinus impressed Emperor Claudius II by healing the blindness of a jailer’s daughter. Eventually the emperor condemned Valentinus to death for trying to convert him to Christianity, at which time he became a martyr for the church. In some versions of the story, Valentinus sent a letter to the jailer’s daughter and signed it “your Valentine.”
So, like the Christian martyrs who risked it all for their faith, are you risking it all for love when you ask someone to be your valentine? We don’t have a definitive answer, but it has a nice historical ring to it.
Where did the Valentine’s Day heart shape come from?
The shape of the heart is iconic of love, but it barely resembles the organ in our chests. Why is that?
Ancient coins from Cyrene, a city-state in the location of present-day Libya, show an impression of a silphium seed. The seed of this plant, now extinct, looks like a modern-day heart. Silphium was the center of ancient Cyrene’s economy because it was prized for its medicinal qualities, which ranged from treating coughs to functioning as an herbal contraceptive. It was widely used throughout the Mediterranean.
Silphium only grew in the wild and could not be cultivated. Much like the heart it symbolizes, the plant resisted domestication and constraining it may have been the cause of its demise.
WATCH: What Is The Origin Of Valentine's Day?
Cupid was the Roman god of love. Gradually, over time, he underwent an image makeover in the interests of commerce. According to Scientific American, the original Cupid was a sociopath, “a devil subjecting hapless people to a toxic lust.” Yikes. Try to put that on a card, marketing department. Eventually, he turned into a fat little baby accompanied by cutesy messages like, “Will u be my valentine?” In the 1800s, greeting-card manufacturers used images of cupids in the Renaissance style, latching on to what was popular at the time and celebrating a more innocent side of romance.
How to ask someone to be your valentine
If you’ve come to the dictionary looking for guidance on wooing your valentine, we can offer you advice.
While we traditionally associate cards with Valentine’s Day gift-giving, the day can also be celebrated with any number of popular gift items. In fact, a 2021 poll (that also discovered 28 percent of Americans plan to celebrate their pets that day!) reported they would appreciate these gestures most:
- Receiving candy and chocolate
- Receiving flowers
- Going to dinner
- Enjoying a special, homemade dinner
- Receiving the gift of downtime (parents, we hear you!)
- Receiving comforting gift items (slippers, for example)
- Receiving tickets or enjoying a planned outing
To this list we’ll add our own suggestion: