In Search of New Words for That Thing Called Love

The Atlantic
In Search of New Words for That Thing Called Love
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In Search of New Words for That Thing Called Love

In Sunday's New York Times there's an article that combines things relationship with things semantic: What in the world are you supposed to call the man or woman with whom you've been living with for the past 20 years — your de facto spouse — when you're not actually, officially married, and never want to be? What are you supposed to call the man or woman you love who isn't a "boy" or a "girl" or a "friend"? As I recall, there's a long-running Saturday Night Live sketch about this very social conundrum. Lovah isn't exactly the answer, for any number of reasons; most of them fall under the veil of "too much information." On the other side of that, even if you are married, or your relationship is one barely distinguishable from that of a married couple, maybe you think husband and wife sound too stodgy, too part of the old-guard, too medieval. You're more progressive! So what do you call yourself, and your lovah?

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In her Times piece, Elizabeth Weil canvasses a few such people who've struggled to come up with names for what they are to each other and brings the conversation into the new year: "Now that we’ve come to some consensus on same-sex marriage, let’s move on to the next puzzle: what to call two people who act as if they are married but are not," she writes. Marriage equality and what to call your long-time live-in boyfriend or girlfriend are hardly the same thing, but it's true that the semantics for the latter seem oddly lacking. Partner is confusing; is it business or otherwise? Lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other, and special friend have also been tossed off as silly, young, dated, ridiculous. Baby daddy may not be the right note, exactly, either. And no one in a relationship, new or old, wants to be described by their partner as "my friend." In the face of a semantic dilemma, people have selected their own words — one woman calls her "mate of 23 years" (mate: also bad) mi hombre. Another woman calls the man to whom she is engaged her fusband, "a catchall for 'fake husband, future husband.'” (She scoffs off fiancé, though in fairness, fusband sounds equally bizarre. To each her own!) 

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The U.S. Census Bureau, Weil writes, first tried to name people who lived with other people with whom they were in some sort of romantic relationship back in 1980 (more than 30 years ago!), describing such a human as a "person of opposite sex sharing living quarters,” abbreviated to POSSLQ and pronounced “possle cue.” That could, in fairness, just be a platonic roommate, or a housemate, but that's precisely the point here: All the names we have for it pale in comparison to what the relationship is, even as more and more adults don't marry, or marry later and later, or "live with a paramour who is not a spouse." The same, though, is true for husband and wife. Those words can mean very different things to different people. What they do mean is just one universal thing: These two people have been legally married. 

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It's all a bit silly, this anxiety over what to call things and the inability to find the right words, except there's something deeper at the root of this. Because language evolves to reflect the states we currently live in (but at a pace slightly slower than how we live, generally), this discussion indicates we're reaching a kind of critical mass on the subject of marriage as we do it now (or don't do it), but also that we're not really there yet. We need to find ways of expressing what we are, and a way to say that we have all of these different ways of living with each other, of having relationships, of being in love, long-term or short. We need words that connote acceptance, or lack thereof, depending on what we hope to convey. As Eric Klinenberg, NYU sociology professor and the author of Going Solo, a book about the rise in living alone, told me, "Sometimes language needs time to evolve, and in this case it has been slow catching up with the social change. It's understandable. As a species, we have about 200,000 years of history living together, and only about 60 years of experience going solo, with intimate partners (see, awkward!) at a distance. I expect we'll find better words eventually, but for now we're stuck sounding strange."

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As a side note to that, the unmarried-but-together may find themselves standing in that "countercultural" role in which they have to fight for a kind of legitimacy, even if only in name, and so they need a name that indicates their separation from the norm. Writes Weil, "Carmen Fought, a linguist at Pitzer College who studies social awkwardness, thinks all the funny and cumbersome names reveal a lingering discomfort with unmarriage." That's a statement to which Katie Roiphe (who likes consort and paramour, so take everything with a grain of salt) agrees —  “We have only stiff or silly phrases — like significant other, partner or baby daddy." But perhaps the only reason husband or wife doesn't seem "stiff" or "silly" is because we've had centuries to get used to those words. From the comments on that article, some alternative suggestions: Companion. Darling. Lifemate. Soulmate. Man/Woman. Squeeze. Spousal equivalent. 

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Of course, for all the handwringing about about the words we use to express ourselves, as our ideas about marriage (or lack of it) in society evolve, either a new word will pop up as the standard stock-in-trade or it won't. In the interim, maybe we should all just call each other our given names, or whatever we like, and be O.K. letting the rest of the world figure out exactly what we are to one another. A little mystery never hurt anything. 

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