Since same-sex marriage came in I’ve noticed most of the gay people I know – both men and women – are referring to their spouses as husbands and wives. Good. Let’s hope that’s the end of partner. Now that gay folks no longer have to hide the sex, or gender (now that it’s a matter of choice), of their Significant Other, let’s hope the rest of us can escape the total market dominance of partner and return to choosing from any of the wonderful varied array of English words available to describe the person we fancy most.
I’ve always hated partner. Why? Because it’s dull. It’s turgid. It’s verbal broccoli. And it’s downright Orwellian, when you think about it: It was Big Brother who came up with the idea that the fewer words people are allowed to use, the easier it is to control their thoughts. So in 1984 it was no longer officially permissible to say bad or undesirable or unpleasant or questionable or dodgy or shonky or evil or immoral or amoral or nasty. Things were either good or ungood up to the level of doubleplusungood.
And so it is with partner. Suddenly a whole vocabulary of other words for The One was declared off limits, to the extent that you have to be in your eighties or nineties or in a nursing-home these days to get away with calling the person with whom you’ve co-habited and co-parented for the last sixty or more years your wife or husband.
So what alternatives are there? Oodles! But first, a lesson in language and social history. And let me say at the outset that since English doesn’t have a gender-netural pronoun to signify the third person singular, and since I don’t want to have to use a clumsy male version/female version device for the rest of the lesson, I will hereinafter speak of my own experience, and those words which denote the feminine may be taken by my male or my gay readers to import the masculine, or the LGBQTI, as the case may be.
Once upon a time things were simple. When you were a kid you had friends, and these were of the same sex as you. When you became a teenager you had boyfriends too. These were people of the opposite sex in whom you had a sexual interest. You weren’t supposed to act on it but you usually did anyway, hoping your parents wouldn’t find out.
There were also people of the opposite sex in whom you had no sexual interest, and they were Just Friends. Sometimes they asked for more and you had to tell them they were like a brother to you. This was supposed to be a compliment but in practice it made your friend very sad, because you’d as good as told him that you wouldn’t touch him with a bargepole. Nevertheless the system worked because everyone went along with the polite fiction that virtual siblinghood was a desirable status to have.
After boyfriends came fiances. You weren’t supposed to have sex with them either, even though you were going to marry them. (I’m taking this nice and slowly because I realise some of these concepts may be difficult for younger readers.)
After fiances came husbands. These were the people you were allowed to have sex with – the only ones, in fact. Some very daring, arty people had sex with people to whom they weren’t married but this usually only happened on TV or in the movies and hardly anyone knew such people in real life.
Husbands were also the only people you had children with, and here terminology was nice and simple because everyone knew exactly who to call mum, dad, auntie, uncle, cousin or grandma. As for the government, they called the mums housewives and the dads breadwinners. This was of course terribly sexist but nobody knew it at the time because sexism hadn’t been invented.
Then came the sixties, and things started to get a bit complicated. Lots of people got divorced, and so you had ex-wives, stepfathers, half-sisters and the like. If you had one or more of these the government said you came from a broken home, which was not a good thing. We now know such a state of affairs to constitute a blended family, which IS a good thing.
Then came the seventies and things got more complicated still. The sexual revolution was in full swing and selecting a mate became a bit like buying a car – you didn’t want to end up with a lemon so you did a lot of test-driving. Bedroom performance check was followed by trial cohabitation in which basic faults such as alcoholism, criminality, and toenail-cutting in public were checked for.
As a result of all this upheaval, somewhere in the mid-seventies there arose The Great Terminological Conundrum that was to remain unsolved throughout the latter part of the seventies and all through the eighties. What exactly did you call the person, usually of the opposite sex but not necessarily, with whom you had a theoretically exclusive sexual relationship, with whom you probably lived, either by yourselves or with sundry others, and who you may have intended to marry at some stage in the future?
It was a question in which our mothers had a particular interest, because they were often at a loss as to how to introduce these Significant Others to the rellos at Christmas.
What was on offer in the available lexicon was not always suitable. Fiancé was out, because eventual marriage was by no means guaranteed. Lover imparted more information than was called for, especially in the presence of one’s grandparents. Boyfriend was OK for anyone under 25, but began to sound a little silly if you were on the shady side of forty and had already ditched a spouse or two. Spouse itself was out because in those days it meant married.
De facto was often accurate but it sounded low-rent, as if the beloved were the kind of unemployable bum whose presence had to be hidden from the government to ensure the continuation of welfare payment.
Companion wasn’t quite right. For a start, a lifelong companion was the one left behind when a famous gay person died, and our mothers (mostly) weren’t having a bar of that. Then the animal rights people got into the act and pets became companions, so that vacancy was well and truly filled.
In the end our mums opted for Friend, pronounced with a certain intonation that distinguished it from mere friend. Friend was pronounced as if it was in quotes and you could hear that capital F. It was said a little bit slower than friend, and with just a hint of upward inflection. Sometimes it was dressed up with a ‘gentleman’ or ‘lady’ at the front, but this was problematic too: a gentleman friend sounds elderly and a lady friend sounds like a floozie. Don’t ask me why, they just do.
For us youngsters down in amongst these new-fangled relationships the position was not as fraught. We’d grown up with as many terminological options as there were youth subcultures, and could pick and choose accordingly.
My lady was fashionable in the sixties and seventies among the hip and groovy and even got into pop songs – think Cat Stephens’ My Lady D’Arbanville, Tom Jones’ She’s A Lady or Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay. Curiously, my gentleman was not.
My man and my woman had a certain forthright, classical ring and was sometimes heard on the lips of hardy back-to-nature types who built mudbrick houses and home-schooled their children.
I always liked the cuddly jocularity of squeeze, although it did sound a bit flippant when you introduced the new fella to the folks as ‘my latest squeeze’, as if his tenure in that post was short-term only.
Fella itself was nice, having a certain Irish charm about it: ‘Meet me new fella. Isn’t he grand?’ Curiously, it didn’t have much currency beyond Irish shores.
My boy and my girl were okay, and were reinforced in popular music – My Boy Lollipop, My Girl, Jessie’s Girl – but plain old boyfriend and girlfriend were the default choices of the young and the young-ish right up until….
….. all of a sudden, from out of the blue, at some undefined point in the early nineties and sweeping all before it like a mighty hurricane, came partner. And things became simple once again. Anyone you slept with more than once became your partner, no questions asked. No-one, not even the government, wanted to know whether this partner was husband, boyfriend, de facto, lover, fiancé or friend. They didn’t even care what sex this person was. Nowadays they don’t even care what gender this person has chosen!
I know the thinking behind partner, but I still hate it.
For a start, it’s applied retrospectively and insensitively. I always shake my head when I read in the news that 84-year-old Joe Blow has died, leaving behind his partner of 60 years, Mrs Blow. They didn’t call one another partner, for heaven’s sake!
For another thing, it’s often not suitable for purpose. I mean, what if you don’t live with the P-person? What if you don’t share children or houses or finances or cars? What if you don’t even live in the same town? In what sense are you partners? Eh? Answer me that!
And then there’s that Orwellian element. I say the more words there are for something the better. I say bring back husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers, fellas, spouses, fiances and squeezes, although maybe we can ditch de facto. I’ll even go so far as to say we should bring back mistress, not in the old-fashioned sense of a kept and fallen woman, but in the even older sense of sweetheart, as expressed here by Shakespeare:
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? /O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming/ That can sing both high and low; / Trip no further, pretty sweeting, /Journeys end in lovers’ meeting /Every wise man’s son doth know.
Now substitute partner for mistress in that first line. That’s another thing wrong with the P-word – there’s no poetry in it! And speaking of sweetheart, let’s have more of those!
How’s this for a seductive pitch, from Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress:
What is love? ’tis not hereafter/Present mirth hath present laughter/What’s to come is still unsure /In delay there lies no plenty/ Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty/Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
Had we but world enough, and time/This coyness, Lady, were no crime/We would sit down and think which way/To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Anyway, that’s what I reckon. Oh, and my paramour agrees with me.