From her balcony, Juliet soliloquizes, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” thus lamenting that her Capulet surname doesn’t pair well with Romeo’s Montague. According to those labels, they’re chocolate and oysters, not a Reese’s Cup.
When it comes to relationship labels, though, Juliet would have no trouble. The hottie from the ball quickly becomes her boyfriend, and she his girlfriend. These terms are appropriate because, according to Shakespeare, Juliet is a mere bat mitzvah-ready thirteen, and Romeo might have his driver’s license, but he probably couldn’t vote. Then, within twenty-four hours, the labels change as the couple goes to being fiance/fiancee to being husband/wife. Or, as the old-timey wedding ceremony went “man and wife,” because the man still remained a man and the wife was now his property.
The vocabulary is especially lacking for modern romantic relationships not headed for marriage.
The newly-minted Capulet-Montagues, with stunning efficiency, tear through the major labels available in English to define romantic attachments. The categories break down into: dating, engaged, married. Then, within a matter of days, Romeo is able to refer to Juliet as his “late wife” (although the reports of her death are greatly exaggerated) and she eventually makes good on the label, with the help of a happy dagger, because Romeo really is her “late husband.” As you can see, there are labels to describe the parties at the end of a marriage, by modifying husband/wife. Besides “late spouse” in the case of death, there are divorce labels like “former spouse,” which sounds very formal, and “ex spouse,” which is jauntily reduced to “ex,” a bit close to ex-con.
But, why oh why, I call out from my balcony, isn’t there a good label for a romantic relationship between adults? How can people over 18 be boyfriend/girlfriend? The options are especially lacking for modern romantic relationships not headed for marriage, with apologies to the Bard who insisted on that “happy ending,” even when his characters were ill-suited. The couples in Measure For Measure will need a divorce lawyer ten minutes after the curtain falls. Same with Winters Tale.
The Problem with Labels
Think of all the labels we have for stages of childhood. We distinguish between: newborn, infant, baby, toddler, pre-schooler, boys/girls (children), tweens, teens, juvenile, young adults, new adults, etc. Allegedly, Eskimos have 47 words for snow. Society makes distinctions—and has vocabulary–for what it considers important.
No man wants to be called a boy, with the possible exception of being a participant in “boys’ night out.”
My objection to “girlfriend/boyfriend” for grown-ups is that they’ve passed the stages of girlhood/boyhood. I grew up at the time that “women” fiercely objected to being called “girls.” From the moment I set foot on my college campus in 1976, I was no longer the “girl” I had been in high school, I was a “woman,” even if I was seventeen. I still cringe today when someone refers to me as a “girl” because, even if it’s meant kindly, it’s demeaning. No man wants to be called a boy, with the possible exception of being a participant in “boys’ night out” or being excused from bad behavior with “boys will be boys.”
I recognize that compound words like “boyfriend/girlfriend” can be more than the sum of the their parts—potpie springs to mind, its lovely melding of deep-dish crust and savory filling so much more than a pie in a pot—but it feels wrong to refer to someone on Social Security as a boy/girl anything. Other label options include “lover” (cringe-worthy TMI), “sweetheart” (shades of a barbershop quartet), “flame” (best for a past connection, as in “old flame”), and “soul mate” (Keats-worthy). “Friend” and “partner” are just confusing and require adjectives “super-special friend” and “romantic partner.” A female can call a male an “escort” (when going to a debutante ball), but a male should never call a female an escort. Neither group should use “paramour.” “Mistress” has negative connotations, although if it came with a cavernous Fifth Avenue penthouse, I could be persuaded, and “sugar-daddy/sugar-baby” are not sweet, even with all that saccharine invoked.
We could easily create the new compound words “galfriend/guyfriend” which are short and snappy. Gal and guy work for all ages and have a jaunty ring. Not a lot of re-programming of brains required for the switch.
Once the relationship becomes more serious—which nowadays could mean deleting your Match profile, getting “engaged to be engaged,” moving in together, having a baby, being a couple for years and years and years–the modern “bae” could work. Using “bae,” which means person “before anyone else” or “before anything else,” makes you sound hip, but using “hip” makes you sound dowdy.
Unfortunately, bae doesn’t convey much information beyond the intensity of your emotions. What are the other label options? “Significant other” gained some traction for awhile, but six syllables is a lot of breath to dedicate to the cause. Its abbreviation–S.O.–is just one “S” shy of the signal for help, which sends the wrong message. More significantly, “significant other” seems too robotic for a romantic relationship. Can’t you hear R2D2 saying, “This is my significant other. We like to share a glass of mulled oil before retiring together to our charging station?” “Romantic partner” and “domestic partner” are not much better. There’s the acronym “UPIARR” which stands for “unmarried party in a romantic relationship.” Not a good fix.
10 Homemade Suggestions
I’ve come up with some homemade suggestions. Take that, William Shakespeare, you’re not the only one to coin a phrase. As you read through, bear in mind that any new term feels awkward at first and needs to catch-on before feeling right.
I’d set myself the goal of coming up with a new term and came up with a winner.
- Boommate. Close to roommate (so implies living together), but has that powerful addition of something exciting, although maybe too explosive. If you last together till the end, you can also be a tombmate.
- Greatmate. The power of rhyme with “great” (fabulous) and “mate”(friend/spouse). Unfortunately, if you’re not getting along, it could be misconstrued as “gratemate.”
- Fatemate. All the pluses of option #2, without the homophone pitfall. It’s heading in the direction of “soulmate” without the treacle. Sadly, someone could be your fated mate without actually being your soul mate.
- Bedfellow. Here’s a word Will would recognize…and use, although not in this context. Maybe, like “lover,” it’s awkward in providing too much information. Still, it’s convenient. The word exists, but has gone into disuse. Although it contains “fellow” which leans masculine (“he’s a fine fellow”), it is used for females too, like she’s a “fellow” in the graduate program. And it means peer, companion. Worth considering.
- Rom-roomie. It trips off the tongue nicely, and the meaning isn’t hard to grasp if you’re familiar with the term “rom-com” (what planet are you from if you haven’t seen Kate Hudson, Meg Ryan, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts do their thing?) With very few syllables (three) and very few different letters (you get a deal on r, m, o) you convey that this is a romantic partner who you live with. Sadly, though, it comes across as a bit cutesy. If you’re about to take-over as president of a large bank, do you really want to introduce your charming sidekick as your rom-roomie?
- Bunkhunk. This only works if you’re living with a guy…and he’s great-looking. It’s the term I always used for my secret liaison before he left me for Amal (shhhhh).
- LIL The acronym stands for “live-in lover.” On the plus side, it’s short, informative, and palindromic. On the negative, it’s weird to introduce your beau Wilt Chamberlain as “LIL Wilt.” Also, you might get confused and say it’s your “love-in liver” and nobody likes liver.
- LIP The acronym stands for “live-in partner.” What if your partner is addicted to plumping injections? It would be unfeeling to draw attention to her bee-stung pout, as in “This is my LIP.”
- Life Partner This already term exists, but it’s never really caught on. I hear more “significant other” or “S.O.” which sets the bar very low. Why don’t people like “life partner”? Maybe because “partner” conjures up the legal and business worlds (modified by general, limited, lawfirm, etc.) It’s hard to make the arrangement seem like any fun. It could be abbreviated to L.P. (or “Elpie”) but those initials will, for a certain age group, always mean “long playing.”
Number 10. I’ve saved the best for last; this is definitely the winner. It’s a short—a mere two syllables—compound word that incorporates two solid words. It doesn’t sound too cute or too serious, too risque or too prudish. I’d set myself the goal of coming up with a new term and, after a couple of days of nada, I was really sweating it. Then it came to me in the shower, and I realized I wasn’t really sweating it, I was wet. You probably want me to disclose the word because you’re going to a cool cocktail party in five minutes and you need to know how to refer to your special-person-lover-partner-with-whom-you-share-your-bed-and-home. Ok, ok, don’t be impatient. You’ve waited years for this wisdom, a few seconds longer won’t make a difference. Drum roll, please:
- Lifemate. It’s the word we’ve all been waiting for. Life: because you’re sharing each other’s lives, unless you’ve paired off with a big-firm lawyer, in which case you’re catching occasional glimpses of your beloved. I like that “life” is often used in nautical compounds to suggest things that save your life: lifeboat, life-raft, lifevest. Because having a good “lifemate” can be life-saving. I really like the word “mate” because, as we’ve discussed, it means companion, friend, more than friend (as in spouse). Think of the many ways “mates” pervade our lives: helpmate, shipmate and crewmate (back to nautical references), classmate, housemate, bandmate, teammate, bunkmate, playmate. I don’t think I should mention cellmate, so I won’t.
Some might object that using “life” in lifemate implies a longevity that might not happen, but I say live in the moment. Wife and husband implies “til death do us part,” and yet some don’t last as long as the almond milk in my refrigerator. Remember when Britney got married for only 55 hours? I’m not sure she does. So I have no problem with “lifemate” with its implied: life as I now know it, with expectations into the future, but no guarantees.
What do you think? Would you be willing to refer to your S.O. as your lifemate? I thought you’d like it. I liked it a lot and, when it came to me, patted myself on the back (or maybe I was just soaping up). The words “genius” and “brainiac” sprang to mind shortly thereafter. And then I googled the term “lifemate” (well, after I’d toweled off and dressed), and it turns out that the 1913 Webster’s listed it. I had been visited by the Muse about 100 years too late. But have you ever heard the term? I haven’t, so I’m putting my flag in it.