Today’s post has less to do with our society’s collective mental health and more to do with something that causes me personal mental angst. It’s probably really petty in the overall scheme of things, but I think we need to clear something up to help us all avoid faux paus. Consider the following:
Partner: This term drives me nuts lately. It is entirely ambiguous in our culture and I never know what people I am not intimately acquainted with are referring to. It could me 1). a business partner 2). a partner in some other endeavor, such as doubles tennis 3). someone who has been selected as a long term mate in a heterosexual relationship, or 4). someone who has been selected as a mate in a homosexual relationship.
Basically this word sets me up with four ways to fail. In a world where marriage is not always the first choice for heterosexual couples, and gay couples don’t always favor or feel legitimized to use “husband” or “wife”, I really having to make assumptions as to what kind of partner a person is referring to. What if I mistakenly assume someone is gay and they are really offended by it? What if I think someone is talking about their business partner and is offended when I don’t associate the appropriate connections when they are in fact a gay couple? What if I think someone is gay but they are really just in a committed heterosexual relationship?
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: I haven’t seen very many reliable substitutes for this word. There’s the traditional “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” labels, but I’ve met many adults who abhor these terms, identifying them with the adolescent population.
Significant Other: Then there is the “significant other” qualifier, which is about as ambiguous as partner. In our world today, a significant other could be anything from a lover to a favorite pet to a piece of key lime pie.
Special Friend: There’s a member of my extended family who has been in a long term heterosexual relationship following the death of her husband. She chooses to call him her “special friend.” I get what she means, but this phrase always irks me, especially when I read her name in family funeral programs: “So and so, with special friend: such and such”‘. In my head I always hear “This is my special fwend!” I understand why she doesn’t want to use partner, because it could imply wrongly that she was gay, and sometimes because of the business partner connotation it can seem impersonal. However, I want to save her from the implied label of “friend with benefits” or “this is my imaginary friend” ideas that are conjured up when using the special friend label.
I’ve decided we need to do something like the Native Americans from the far north who had like a billion different words for “snow”. There’s the wet snow, the dry snow, this kind of snow, that kind of snow, and so on. If we could develop words to describe succinctly every type of intimate relationship currently existing in our culture, then we could save ourselves from a lot of embarrassment and mislabeling.
I’m not hugely creative in the word development department, so if you have any great ideas, I’d love to read them.
Seeking as much un-ambiguity as possible,