Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Cafe
With a friend of a friend of mine
Who sat with a baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
A phrase in connection first with she I heard
That love is just a four-letter word

Outside a rambling store-front window
Cats meowed to the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut, too
To you I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn't think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed towards things in my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more
Absurd than that love is just a four-letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that's supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be
Assured that love is just a four-letter word

Strange it is to be beside you
Many years and tables turned
You'd probably not believe me
If I told you all I've learned
And it is very, very weird indeed
To hear words like forever plead
Those ships run through my mind, I cannot cheat
It's like looking in the teacher's face complete
I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word

Lyrics submitted by theraininspain, edited by Mellow_Harsher, Soenke

Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word song meanings
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  • +2
    General CommentThis is what I think:

    Verse 1...Dylan ditches preconceived notions. He meets a woman who has a child out of wedlock (big deal back in those days) but the woman is ok with it. She is not beaten down or encumbered as a single mother. He sees she is free. She flippantly says that love is 'just a four letter word'. She shrugs off her difficult situation.

    Verse 2...The woman is on the phone perhaps, or in conversation with the father of her child They are arguing. Maybe he is trying to win her back. His love she doesn't want. She doesn't believe in him. All he says is 'words'. Dylan realizes they are talking about an idea of love, with a child involved. He realizes tha his idea of 'love' is perhaps not the same as theirs. Their idea of love has a dimension he knows nothing about. That's why he 'kept his mouth shut'.

    Verse 3...he has a revelation about attitude...about the strength of the woman to go it alone. He dismisses himself but they/ she doesn't notice. They don;t notice him because they are concerned with a stage of life that he is an infant to: having a child. He hears what she says to the father of her child. He is energized/ inspired by her strength. She doesn't want this man. He wants to find someone else who shares his realization of the spirit in the woman/ mothers be take on life as a single not slave herself to someone she obviously does not love. It's inspirational for Dylan. He is looking to strip away all of his preconceived notions...starting with the idea that a woman will submit to a man. He wants to find a place where this kind of freedom of thinking is shared. He believed in 'love' before this...but now he realizes that 'love' is not so complicated. He thought that there would be nothing more absurd than to think that love is just a 4 letter word. A true believer in 'love'. But he knows better now.

    Verse 4...he can't say or interpret exactly what the relationship/ malfunctioning relationship is between the mother and the father of her child...he can only interpret their/ her words in terms of his life and how what they say impacts on his thoughts. He had thought of love as kind of itself to be virtuous and true. But now he does not believe that. He sees that love can come and then go just as fast. It can touch a couple but then leave them just as quick. Love is free. It belongs to no-one. He realizes that his mistakes are in his perceptions. His perceptions are not 'the thing'. He knows now that love is a casual word, especially on the lips of those who do not really understand the nature of love...such as the man and woman of the story who have had a child out of wedlock and who realize (especially the woman) that they do not love each other.

    Verse 5...I think Joan Baez wrote the last verse....and of course it's all about Dylan.
    hellopeopleon April 12, 2016   Link
  • +1
    General Commentdon't think dylan ever recorded it. baez got a hold of it before it was even finished and began singing it at concerts. i would love to hear how dylan intended for it to be, though. he must have like joan's version better than what he had in mind
    jasssson December 13, 2009   Link
  • +1
    Song FactThe way I understand it Dylan never finished this song and Joan Baez wrote the last verse..
    RogerKon March 06, 2015   Link
  • 0
    General CommentPLEASE comment on this song it's so great. Joan Baez has a wonderful cover of this song, it's beautiful and you should listen to it.

    And the meaning is kind of profound.
    It's about someone who is searching for and believes in love or a soul mate. But comes to realize, through the events of the song, that perhaps love is nothing more than a word. People set up their own heartbreaks and maybe there is no one person who we were "meant" to be with. Or perhaps that is just the view of a pessimist. It seems to be what the song is commenting on though.
    laocoonon February 28, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI agree; Joan Baez's cover is great. In No Direction Home, she was talking about how she was with Bob the first time he heard the cover and he didn't remember he wrote it. He just remarked that it was a good song and she said something like 'You wrote it, you dope!'
    missworld77on May 09, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentDoes anyone know if Bob Dylan ever recorded a version?

    Brilliant song and a sublime version by Baez.
    hellopeopleon June 27, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General Commentso this is basically a very long agreement with laocoon, but since there aren't many other comments and i like this song a lot...

    to me the title/refrain plays with 3 meanings - on the one hand, it's just literally true. the word 'love' has four letters. which could also be interpreted to mean that the dream of romantic love is just an unrealistic ideal, that 'love' is no more than a mundane word we use to create the illusion of something that doesn't really exist. on the other hand, 'four-letter word' is a nice way of saying cussing. so maybe that shows that our idealized concept of love isn't only nonexistent, but might even be an abomination, a swear word, a curse - like hopeless seeking or disillusionment can always be.

    so the first verse seems to be just him remembering the first time he heard the phrase from a friend who had a child and was perfectly content with her life. maybe the part about slavery could be a reference to how the traditional jobs of homemaker and mother were sometimes called 'slavery' in the women's movement, but that for some women they really aren't? or that even someone who doesn't believe in love can be happy, free from the 'slavery' of misplaced ideals... i have no idea; i can't think of anything more plausible.

    in the next verse i ask myself whether he's talking about the same person as in the first. anyhow, i see an idealistic kid in 'love' with someone whom he overhears speaking to a former lover (a more important one, who holds a permanent place through a mutual child) about the fact that she doesn't believe in love. so kind of a sad, disillusioning thing.

    saying goodbye unnoticed seems to refer to the person above - and it could just be saying goodbye to someone who doesn't care much about what you do, but i also thought of a kind of emotional goodbye, where you withdraw from a relationship mentally and the other person doesn't notice that everything's ended because you're both still going through the motions. and then he's just talking about carrying on his own 'games', unsuccessfully searching for this impossible ideal of a soul mate. then the last line (nothing more absurd) i'd see as him still not believing that this ideal can't be found, not believing the cynicism.

    but then he reaches his own interpretation of the phrase, falls out of 'love' often enough to realize that it - at least in the form he's seeking it, the 'holy kiss' - isn't permanent, isn't real, is just an illusion that passes from couple to couple and never actually stays with anyone. - i'm not sure about the traps, maybe the idea that those kinds of expectations are traps only you can set yourself (or free yourself from). but finally, he believes the phrase.

    and then at the end, maybe he's back beside the one who hurt him with that cynicism back when he was a romantic, or maybe he's just with some new idealist of his own and it seems weird to be in the opposite position - of having someone else believe in 'forever', love, etc (and maybe want that from him). i'm not sure about the cheating thing - maybe the thought of ships passing in the night and not being willing to engage in an affair, or maybe not being able to cheat and pretend to be more idealistic than he really is... and finally he can't think of anything to do but to fall back on what he's learned (maybe with a touch of spite, if he's really talking to the person mentioned in the beginning of the song) and say that idealized love is impossible or that seeking it is profanity.
    jalopyon September 19, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIt may at the start be someone who can't take hearing that love is just a four letter word [perhaps a previous lover of the woman with baby who has been overheard rejecting/saying love is merely a word?] ! So after trying to vanish, evaporate the young man/narrator comes full circle; maybe now not as caught or deeply shocked, having understood other insights but still only able to repeat what he first overheard. The lyrics try to resolve it, convince himself but is it left open (like a song wound}?
    alastair10on May 07, 2015   Link
  • 0
    General Comment**** Verse 3....I mean "is complicated"

    Sorry...I'm a few beers in.

    Fuck work
    hellopeopleon April 12, 2016   Link

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