Years ago, a friend was speeding along in her partner’s car when police stopped her. The officer checked the licence and registration of the car and when they didn’t match up, he asked her whose car she was driving. Her response was, “My temporary life partner’s.” Not just “partner.” Not even “life partner.” “Temporary life partner.” As if she knew the end was inevitable. The officer, bemused, let her go and wished her a safe journey. The labelling of her significant other saved her from a ticket.
The term “partner” became popular years ago when people wanted to avoid the loaded “husband/wife” or the puppy love labels of “boyfriend/girlfriend.” For some, “partner” indicated a serious and mature commitment.
The word itself comes from the Old French and Latin word, “parcener,” meaning a joint heir. It has the connotation of having a share or a part in something, so for fans of the word, it means equality in the relationship.
Esther Enns, dean of arts at Saint Mary’s University, says “partner” started as a bureaucratic word, mostly used in business or legal matters. She says it first came into use through government agencies for statistical purposes. People had to indicate what kind of relationship they were in, so the term “domestic partner” was invented. “It’s just a really neutral, technical term so that the census or Statistics Canada could identify how people were related to one another.”
Saint Mary’s University modern languages and classics professor John Plews says social changes, such as the women’s movement and gay liberation, have had an effect on language in the last 40 years. “Different groups are setting the agenda for how we use language. It’s not so much the government or upper class or church that has so much power over public language.” He says those movements have taken things that are private and personal and discussed them in the political sense, bringing them to public discourse.
Not everyone is a fan of “partner.” It is a neutral term that does not have traditional or conservative associations, yet it seems ambiguous and formal to many. Are you talking about a business partner? Is it a same-sex partner relationship? A heterosexual relationship? Are you life partners, or is this just a romp in the sack? With more and more heterosexual couples adopting the term, figuring out the romantic connotation of someone’s partner is becoming confusing.
Karyn Haag, who has been with her girlfriend, Shannon, for over a year and a half does not like to use “partner” to describe their relationship. To Haag, the word sounds platonic and doesn’t accurately reflect who she is. “I like people to know that I’m dating a woman instead of being ambiguous. I think people make a lot of assumptions…it’s just easier to lay it out on the table and let people know.”
So now the problem is finding a word that conveys the level of commitment of “partner” but isn’t completely devoid of feeling.
“Lover” doesn’t quite cut it. To some, it sounds seedy and puts the emphasis on the carnal pleasures of the relationship. To others, it just sounds hokey. Pras Rajagopalan, a writer and student, has been with his partner, Amanda, for five years. He says “lover” sounds too hippie-ish. “I don’t use enough patchouli to justify using the word.”
Plews says some people cringe at the word “lover” because it is related to a sexual life and even in today’s open society, there is still an element of taboo, privacy or embarrassment attached. “You probably need a bit of confidence to use it in a public environment.”
If “partner” is too politically correct, “lover” too risque, “boyfriend/girlfriend” too juvenile, “spouse” too clerical and “husband/wife” too conservative, what else is there?
For the multilingual, there’s the option of turning to other languages to fill their labelling needs. Russian is big on diminutives, which are added to words and names to show affection or to make something more cute or endearing. For someone named Andrei, his beloved might call him Andreika or Andryusha. Yet, introducing your loved one, “This is Andryusha,” might not cut it with your boss and cause reddening in Andrei’s cheeks.
German has a poetic mouthful of a word, Lebensgefährte, which roughly translates to “companion through life.” Sounds romantic, but turning to other languages poses yet another problem. You can’t communicate with others who don’t understand the language. If you randomly say, “I’d like you to meet Benny, my lebensgefährte,” most people probably won’t understand.
Languages such as Arabic don’t even have neutral terms like partner and focus instead on the more intransigent “husband and wife.” Chinese and Russian have the word “partner” in their vocabularies, but saying it clearly implies a business or homosexual partner. Plews says a lot of the social activist movement around gay liberation has taken place in the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly in the United States and Canada, which might explain why English speakers are more likely to use “partner” than non-English speakers.
Language is something that evolves over hundreds of years and is constantly being re-invented. Even with “partner,” the “life” part of it has been dropped but is still implied. Nowadays, people do not necessarily have to pretend that the relationship will last forever or that they only have one exclusive partner either. With the rise of alternative lifestyles and living arrangements from the ’60s, ’70s and ‘80s, “partner” came into fashion and like relationships themselves, the term is not static.
Perhaps the way to get around saying “partner” is simply to personalize. Pet names are a linguistic signal of affection. Aside from showing fondness in physical ways, we can show affection audibly by using language. We all have nicknames for our loved ones so we might as well add a personal touch to it. “Grandma, I’d like you to meet my sweetie pie.” If all else fails, go for “my main squeeze.” Sure it’s extra syllables. But doesn’t your special someone deserve it?