"sweetheart, paramour, loved one" (archaic), c. 1200, lemman, "loved one of the opposite sex; paramour, lover; wife;" also "a spiritually beloved one; redeemed soul, believer in Christ; female saint devoted to chastity; God, Christ, the Virgin Mary;" also a term of intimate address to a friend or lover, contracted from late Old English leofman, a compound of leof "dear" (see lief) + man "human being, person" (from PIE root *man- (1) "man").
Originally of either gender, though in deliberate archaic usage it tends to be limited to women. Often in religious use in early Middle English, of brides of Christ, the spiritually beloved of God, etc.; by c. 1300 it could mean "betrothed lover," and by late 14c. it had the pejorative sense "concubine, mistress, gallant." For loss of medial -f-, compare had.
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