The end of ‘Significant Other’: What do you call the One You Love?
This is the moment, people. This is the time to act.
As legal marriage between gay people becomes more common, as the whole notion of marriage shifts with contemporary values, a door is opening and we must walk through it.
I’m talking here about nomenclature – It’s time to come up with better language for the person we love.
In the last couple of years, certain gender pronouns have become attached to certain nouns in a way that has never happened before. Contemporary English is making way for the phrases “her wife” and “his husband,” triggering acid reflux in many social conservatives – I think they were the real reason the pope resigned.
The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on California’s notorious Proposition 8, and one possible outcome is that the Court will remove legal barriers for gays to marry all over the country. In that case, this new language will become normalized pretty quickly.
You can’t really blame gay Americans for embracing the labels that have always been legally withheld from them and reveling in the comfort and legitimacy of those words. I have a recently married gay male friend who admitted to falling in love with just saying “my husband.”
But just as gays are rushing to the titles “husband” and “wife,” straights may be moving away from them. A straight married woman I listen to regularly on a podcast once said that, in contrast to my friend, she can’t bring herself to utter the word “husband” when referring to the man she married and she’s even more horrified of referring to herself as a wife.
For close to 50 years now, “husband” and “wife” have been loaded words. Many feminists found “wife” to be a dreary, oppressive term but the real etymological landmine is “husband,” which came from the Old Norse for “master of the house” or “house owner.” The word had survived in verb form as a synonym for managing or cultivating. So buried in the very language was the idea that the man in a heterosexual relationship was the homeowner and the house manager. And the wife – the word is from the Germanic meaning “woman” – was simply … the woman. Well, that’s not how my marriage works and it’s probably not how yours works either.
This notion of the husband as the shepherd and the wife as the sheep may have once fit traditional gender roles but are today clearly at odds with modern relationships. Gender equality is hard to come by if the very words we use undermine that equality.
Of course, gays and unmarrieds know all about the awkward groping about for the comfortable term for their monogamous relationships. Both groups have, for generations, defaulted to “boyfriend/girlfriend,” which are terms that came about back when people typically married at 20 and the only times when they were unmarried were literally when they were boys and girls, or close to it. Now, we have grown adults – sometimes even middle-aged or elderly adults – calling each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” only because our language has failed to come up with alternatives.
Not that there aren’t alternatives; they’re just awful ones.
“Lover”? Seriously? First of all, there’s a too-much-information issue with that term. But it’s also more than a little bit decadent and ridiculous. A lover is something Sophia Loren might have, not you and me.
“Partner” is accurate, I suppose. But it’s prissy and uptight and sounds like a euphemism used for the benefit of whoever in the room might be in denial that anyone outside a heterosexual marriage could physically love another person. It’s also slippery and vague. You can have a business partner, a musical partner. You can even make partner at your law firm. Why is a word like that applied to the one true love of your life?
“Significant Other,” or worse, “S.O.,” is a hideous term, devoid of life, scared to death of intimacy. It’s like something that the family in the old “Saturday Night Live” skit “The Coneheads” might call each other. It’s just a step up from “Domestic Unit.”
“Soulmate” sounds good … in the bedroom, or snuggling on the couch. It’s not so useful at a business function where no one wants to acknowledge anyone else has a soul. Besides there’s a permanence about “soulmate” that can be intimidating. You might be cool with calling some decent guy you’ve been dating for three months your boyfriend, but “soulmate”? That kind of ratchets up the intensity to a high level.
“Sweety” or “sweetheart” are nice terms, but they’re way too grandmotherly. “Manfriend” or “Ladyfriend” cannot be uttered with a straight face. “Paramour” sounds like a defunct car model – I think my dad had a Buick Paramour. “Spouse” is a sexless census word that makes anyone who says it sound like a walking insurance form. “Escort” is code for hooker and “special friend” just gives everybody the creeps.
Pop culture occasionally provides us with more, uh, colorful alternatives. “Baby Daddy” or “Baby Mamma” are not references to “Baby,” as in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It’s a reference to a literal baby and really means, “this annoying person that I had a baby with.” In hip-hop circles, some rappers have taken to referring to their girlfriends as their “shorties.” They would so not work in my house.
So, where do we go then, when husband/wife have outlived their usefulness and the alternatives are all bad? I say to turn to another language. Spanish is great for words that are gendered but equitable, words that work for marrieds and unmarrieds, gay or straight, words not saddled with all the bad connotations of the English words we’re used to.
By the way, have you met my “compañera”? She’s as beautiful as the word, even more so.