Lexicon Valley

How Should We Refer to Our Significant Others? (Can I Ever Say “the Boyfriend”?)

We’ve decided to just art this post with an incredibly goodlooking couple. (Here are Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black.)

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After a humble piece of Internet threw Slate into disarray with its repeated invocations of “the boyfriend,” XX Factor staff writer Christina Cauterucci chatted with words correspondent Katy Waldman about the terms we use for romantic partners. Which are the most and least accurate, inclusive, and expressive? Which are sexy? Which remind us of white-shoe law firms? (And you thought “defining the relationship” was hard!)

Katy Waldman: Hey Christina! So, we have convened this summit to talk about what to call our significant others. A recent post on Refinery29 grated on people’s nerves because the writer kept referring to her boyfriend as “the boyfriend.” First off, do you agree that this is unacceptable? And if so, what makes it so skin-crawly?

Christina Cauterucci: Yeah, that phrasing has always made me cringe, and until I took a long, hard look at myself after reading that post, I never knew why. I think it’s because it’s flippant and kind of demeaning in a jokey way—like how a man might call his spouse “the wife” or “the ol’ ball and chain”—which comes off rather smug, especially in a piece about how “the boyfriend” insists on buying meals. What do you think? Have you ever called a significant other “the boyfriend”?

Waldman: I shudder to admit this, but I have! And I agree with you that it sounds dismissive and patronizing—the contexts in which I’ve referred to a boyfriend as “the boyfriend” were when we had just started dating. I felt self-conscious, I think, and wanted to downplay his existence. So I tried to make a joke out of it. Terrible idea! Now I just say “my boyfriend,” but I know some couples that have been dating longer than we have find that epithet infantilizing or inadequate. A few of them have proposed “partner,” which also seems self-conscious, in a way, or at least politically charged. What do you think?

Cauterucci: I’ve definitely felt that the words boyfriend and girlfriend fall short when describing relationships that feel more serious than “dating.” The girlfriend (twitch) and I have been together for four years, and lived together for two of them. She’s in my family’s Secret Santa; I found the afikommen at her family’s last Seder. We’re about to buy a Prius together! Calling her my “girlfriend” seems to underplay how much our lives have intertwined, even though we’re not married. Also, some people, especially from previous generations, use the word “girlfriend” to describe platonic female friends, and I don’t want anyone to be confused about our relationship. We’re not “roommates, wink wink”; we’re romantic partners. But yeah, “partner” can sound like a holdover from a particular political moment, in the pre–marriage equality days. What about straight people who use that term?

Waldman: I’m of two minds about them! I like the theoretical idea of a term that doesn’t distinguish between straight and gay relationships. But (I hope this isn’t terribly uncharitable) when straight people talk about their “partners,” it scans to me as self-congratulatory, like “We are so progressive, despite our perfervidly traditional heterosexuality.” Then again, I’m not sure what a good alternative would be. Any ideas?

Cauterucci: Some people have suggested “fiancé,” which Hanna Rosin says conveys the idea of “something like spouse but not quite.” That sounds right, especially as more people delay marriage beyond their girl- and boyhoods, or decide against it altogether. But fiancé means a very particular thing in today’s world, and people who use the term might be forever fielding questions about when’s the ceremony and where’s the ring and all that. I’ve enjoyed using the term “boo,” because it’s nongendered, clearly nonplatonic, and wonderfully flirtatious. I guess it could read as infantilizing too, though. Do you have a preference?

Waldman: I love boo! For some reason I don’t think it quite describes my boyfriend, who can look tall and imposing and Serious. I’m also not sure I would feel comfortable introducing an S.O. that way in formal contexts—does that ever come up for you? To me, boo carries an erotic charge, and I don’t know that I want strangers or bosses in my business like that. Then again, “partner” sounds like such a bloodless administrative arrangement! Please expand on “boo.” (And congrats on the Prius!)

Cauterucci: (Thanks!) You’re right, I’ve never introduced my partner to serious, fancy people as my boo—just fun, conversational people. Another situation that makes me love that term, though, is when I’m asking after a friend’s new lover whose gender I don’t know, whether because my friend is queer or because I don’t want to assume how their lover identifies. “How’s your boo?” says it all.

Then again, why should people in love be forced to adapt around terminology that’s been commandeered by capitalism? I think businesspeople should give up using the term “partner” and stick to “associate” or something, so the rest of us can make “partnership” the warm, loving,  mutually supportive concept it can be.

There’s also “person.” Have you ever heard someone repeatedly call their lover their “person”?

Waldman: You’re so right! Let Wall Street cower before a renewed language of love. My issue with “person” is that it seems like such a floating, contingent designation. What’s the job description for a person? Isn’t your best friend sometimes your person, depending on the services required, or your sister, or your dog? This doesn’t leave a whole lot of options for “the boyfriend,” however! I’ve found humor pretty useful. I’ll say: “This is a random dude named [Redacted].”

What about just saying the person’s name and letting the world draw its own conclusions?

Cauterucci: That can work—if you say the person’s name enough times, or in the right context, your relationship will become clear. But when someone I work with, for example, does that, I get worried that I should know this name, that I’ve met this person or heard about her and forgotten. And it could lead to an uncomfortable situation for all parties if the listener gets it wrong.

Waldman: That’s true, and a part of me does want to clearly delineate—and celebrate!—the relationship.

As my companion in overthinking romantic terminology, do you agree that this is an ongoing conundrum, but workable solutions exist?

Cauterucci: Yes, workable solutions exist. Sounds like something for my associate and me to puzzle out.