in Things that make you go "hmm"

The Era of the Significant Other

A friend of mine brought up the question of referring to her male significant other. When you’re in your 40’s, can you still be boyfriend and girlfriend? She wanted to know if the correct term is now manfriend. She pointed out that in her native Spanish it’s a lot easier: it’s just novio. But in English it’s harder.

Some people have taken up the modern stance that we should avoid such labels, but I find that silly, because labels are just words–like tree, flower and shrub–and we have words because we want to communicate effectively. It’s not helpful to refuse to communicate just because a word isn’t perfect for your use. They never are. But the point is that if you find it mentally less taxing to avoiding use a label to describe your companion, all you’re doing is off-loading that mental processing on everyone you meet as they struggle to figure out what your relationship is. Even though relationship labels rarely fit perfectly, using them puts the people around you in the right ballpark. Not only does it clarify your relationship to people around you, but it also serves as a way to get on the same page with your significant other about expectations.

Back to boyfriending, the real problem here is that our language hasn’t caught up to our reality. Even in Spanish, the words novia/novio originally meant something close to fiance(e). It signified that you were seeing each other with clear intention towards marriage. It no longer has that meaning, because another clearer term replaced it.

In English, the idea of boyfriend/girlfriend developed around the same time as novio stopped meaning “marriage target”–around the 1920’s, as dating replaced traditional courtship. Teenagers were no longer getting hitched so young, and so we needed a word to describe romantic relationships that were not intended to convey a marital track, and the words that were used originally meant simply male or female friend–but since it was atypical for boys to have platonic female friends and vice versa, and since homosexuality in general was in one huge collective closet, there wasn’t much confusion. A girls’ girlfriends were platonic, and her boyfriend was romantic.

It evolved at a time when this was a new concept that certainly hadn’t replaced the idea of getting married–it just meant young adults were less hurried to do so. So it wasn’t a huge problem that it didn’t sound like a term you’d use for a 50-year-old, because you wouldn’t need to.

The interesting thing is that culturally a lot has changed since then. A large percentage of committed couples never get married, but this change happened slowly and so the age of boyfriends and girlfriends crept up. While some people feel comfortable with the English historical tradition of using boy and girl in a playful, age-independent way, others feel the need to become Men and Women. And still others prefer to avoid revealing the gender of their paramour.

It’s worth noting that in language evolution there are many forces at work. One force is of people ignoring the original meaning of a word, and letting it evolve with usage, such as the word gay transitioning from happy to happily homosexual. That’s the force that makes boyfriend just as applicable when you’re 80 as when you’re 15. But there’s also a counteractive force based on speakers examining language and trying to retrofit meanings. That’s the force that has us re-examining the current correct term, which is boyfriend or girlfriend, noticing the boy/girl part, and thinking we need other words.

In reality it’s just the recurring problem of overthinking language–such as how peas started out as pease (singular, or peasen plural) but got “corrected” to pea/peas. Or how many people avoid the term niggardly because it sounds so similar to a derogatory word that originated because most Americans couldn’t pronounce the Spanish word for black. In contrast, terms like gyp, with a genuinely offensive etymology–using the abbreviation of an questionable exonym for the Romani people to signify cheating or dealing unfairly–tend to survive because the origin isn’t obvious. Words don’t always mean what they look like they might, otherwise feminism might mean a movement to make the world conform to ideals of traditional femininity. But I digress.

So let’s look at the options we have today.

  • Lady friend — this term has some interesting ambiguity. For example, my grandfather used it even when I introduced him to girls that I didn’t call girlfriend: one meaning is as female potential romantic interest, but it avoids being too specific. On the other hand, many mature adults prefer this term to girlfriend for committed relationships. You end up with “a lady friend” being ambiguous” but “my lady friend” being more precise.
  • Man friend — Frankly I find this awkward. While some intend this as a parallel to ladyfriend, the actual counterpart in English would be Gentleman friend. (The counterpart to manfriend would be womanfriend, which sounds just as awkward.)
  • Partner — This is a favourite of gender geeks, because it’s highly ambiguous: not only does it not tell the sex or gender of your partner, but it’s also pretty ambiguous about things like how committed you are, and how open or closed the relationship might be. It’s also favoured because it avoids historical status imbalances some people perceive with gendered terms. However the more common use of “partner” is in the sense of non-romantic partnerships, such as business partners or dance partners. So on the one hand it has a very positive connotation of “we’re working together” and “going in the same direction,” it also has the romance and sex appeal of lettuce. Personally I want my girlfriend or wife to be my partner, but that’s not how I’d choose to introduce her.
  • Life Partner — If you want to keep the ambiguity of the word partner with the exception of clearly stating a romantic commitment, this is a great word. I think that adding the word life makes it actually much more romantic. However, that extra word also conveys some sense that maybe you mean partner for life although it doesn’t absolutely mean that.
  • Significant Other — This term was created because partner was obviously deemed too precise and too sexy. It’s the only known violation of rule 34, because it’s just that unsexy. If George Clooney, Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Lawrence and Ryan Gosling all started using this term for their lovers, the universe would explode from the sexy/anti-sexy collision.
  • Lover — The good: it’s gender neutral, so you get a two-for. The bad: it implies a certain intensity beyond “person I’m now dating. The ugly: in particular, it says “person I’m having sex with” but ironically, despite the term, doesn’t suggest much in the way of love. The term suggests that the sex is probably pretty good, but also that there’s nothing else bringing you together. There’s even a slight suggestion that it’s a euphemism for “person I’m cheating on my real relationship with.” You hear people refer quietly to someone as their “lover” but I think I’ve seen people introduced with that word no more than five times in my life, and even that number seems strangely high.
  • Flame — Flame is like a hotter but less commonly used word for lover. Mostly you just hear it in the term old flame suggesting that the fire never quite went out. I’ve heard people introduce a lover with “this is my flame” exactly never.
  • Sweetheart — While this term is a bit old-fashioned, at least it’s romantic. You wouldn’t want to use this term after only two dates, though. But if you need a word for someone you’re in a committed relationship with, this says “we love each other” rather than “regular rutting.”
  • Gentleman Caller — If you enjoy digging up antique terms, this is a good one to refer to a man you’re seeing without suggesting a committed relationship. Note: this is closer to being the male equivalent of how my grandfather used “lady friend.”
  • Beau — I really like this one. Obviously it’s from the French meaning “handsome,” so you can’t take this one badly. It sounds old-fashioned but in a classy, not obsolete way. At worst the term can sound a bit pretentious.
  • Boo — If you’re between 17 and 22, and writing a hiphop song, this is a cute term. You can also use it ironically, but then you’re in hipster territory. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. It’s African-American slang, so I guess it’s a cultural imperative to appropriate it. And it sounds cute. A bit too cute for regular use.
  • Main Squeeze — Trying to be exhaustive, here’s a winner. It essentially means: “of all the people I’m having casual relations with, this is the main one lately.” It makes me hear shouts of “pick me, pick me!”
  • Old Man — There’s nothing sexier than being called something that simultaneously says you’re over the hill and suggests a father-daughter dynamic in your sexual relationship. However, used sparingly and a bit ironically this can be cute. You just might need a license first, though.
  • Old Woman — Because for every Electra, there’s an Oedipus, am I right?
  • Soul Mate — Let’s just say, a little heavy for a first date. This term says clearly how you feel about the person, but very little about your actual relationship. You might think that Joe Biden is your soul mate, but that doesn’t mean you’ve actually met.
  • Companion — This says “I watch way too much Dr. Who.” Actually, some of my friends in university used to say “hanging out” to mean “ambiguously dating” because the term could be anything from two guys playing FPS games and loudly claiming unwarranted sexual prowess, to friendzoners cuddling half-innocently over a RomCom, to a secretive 24-hour marathon of sex injuries. The term companion has a pretty similar vibe, but is rarely used. That is, unless you’re writing for the New York Times, whose policy is to use the word companion to avoid giving offence or getting sued. I’d say leave it to people who actually own a TARDIS or write for the Times.
  • Better Half — This is a humourous yet insightful term traditionally used by self-aware men in healthy relationships. Usually it refers to a wife, but it could refer to your partner in any committed relationship.
  • Other Half — I’ve heard this a few times. You think: this makes it clear that we have an equal relationship. What it sounds like to me: you’re too insecure to lavishly praise the person you love. This term works if you’re playfully teasing.
  • Halfling — Not a relationship term. Go read the Hobbit.
  • Wife — While this discussion is mostly about what to call a romantic partner who isn’t a spouse, for the sake of completeness I’ll point out that with common-law marriages become more commonplace, the definition of wife has been expanded somewhat. Note that the original meaning of wife was woman, back when man meant person and wer meant man.
  • Husband — See wife, except that husband originally meant householder or caretaker.
  • Man/Woman — This can be sexy, but it also sounds possessive in a prehistoric kind of way. Me Grog! This my Woman! Then again, when a blues singer croons about how “my man is such a handyman” it sounds just fine.
  • Boy/Girl — Either this is cuter than man/woman, or you’re just really young. While guys will say “I just met an awesome girl,” I’ve heard girls use the term “boy” more often to refer to a relationship, particularly in an affectionately diminutive way, as in “I’ve got a new boy.” The “boy” might be 42.
  • The person I’ve been seeing/dating — If you use enough words, eventually you can describe your relationship.

That clarifies everything, right?

[Edited to add Man/Woman and Boy/Girl.]

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