Limits of the English Language – Revisited

Our most recent theme week, Sex and Language, has prompted me to revisit a topic that I blogged about a while back: the use of language when describing a significant other. At the time, I was struggling with what I should call my Sig O. Since my partner (yes, I’ve settled on that word) is transgender, I was bouncing between boyfriend and partner. “Boyfriend,” on the one hand, led everyone to assume heterosexuality, while “partner” made me sound like an old lesbian (no offense whatsoever to that crowd, I’m just not quite there yet).

Boyfriend? Partner? Lover? (image courtesy of blogspot)

This of course brings up the question of whether or not I actually care what people think of me. When I use boyfriend and people assume I’m straight, should that bother me? Do I really want every single person I converse with to know the intimate details of who I’m attracted to? On the other hand, when I use partner and then start to talk about my other half using male pronouns, the straight assumption still happens.

As it turns out, I am by no means the only person struggling with the language conundrum. As I had written in my last post on the topic, my mom has the same issue. Her Sig O is over seventy years old – by no means a “boy” – yet when she uses partner, everyone thinks she’s gay. When I brought up the issue over dinner with friends last night, they had a lot to say. One friend (who is currently dating a woman) noted that when she refers to her girlfriend, lots of people (mostly women over 50) assume that she’s simply talking about one of her friends, which she then has to clarify (“no, really, she’s my girlfriend, as in…we have sex”).

A 2008 article in USA Today attempted to take on the language issue. As author Sharon Jayson wrote, “‘People feel a real need for a term that refers to one’s romantic partner that does not sound childish,’ says Jesse Sheidlower of Manhattan, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Partner’ sounds too official. ‘Companion’ sounds too unromantic. ‘Lover’ is too explicit. ‘Boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ seem inappropriate unless you’re a teenager. ‘POSSLQ’ sounds too stupid or bureaucratic.’ (POSSLQ, an acronym for ‘Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters,’ was used in the late 1970s by the U.S. Census.)”

In the article, Jayson focuses specifically on the baby boomers (i.e. my mother’s generation). “‘If you’re in your 50s and living with somebody in a romantic relationship, what to call each other? You can say ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend,’ but you’re not 13 and it doesn’t really fit. You can say ‘significant other,’ but there’s no love in that. One caller suggested ‘paramour,’ but that’s old-fashioned,’ he says. ‘There are a ton of different options and none of them seems to work.”

But it’s not just the boomers who struggle with this (take me as a blaring, 21 year-old example). The only solution I’ve been able to come up with is to simply ask. Last weekend was my uncle’s 50th birthday party, and both myself and my partner were invited. The night before the soiree, my aunt sent me a text message asking me how she should introduce us to her friends. As she wrote, “I refuse to say lover, sorry. I would ask this trans identity aside. Some people hate the expression boyfriend or girlfriend, others dislike partner.” And there you have it, MSP readers, a simple solution to a complicated problem: when in doubt, just ask!

P.S. What do you call your Sig O?

About Michaela


Michaela is a recent Seven Sisters graduate with a self-designed degree in Sexuality Studies. When she's not blogging, you'll find her teaching Health and Wellness and A Cappella to high school students, helping women find properly fitting bras, and working as an editor on a documentary. She hopes to continue her education one day with a PhD in Feminist Anthropology.


    I generally call my significant other my “other half”, which is probably a British thing ;)

    But I think it really depends on who I’m talking to. I guess I tailor it to the situation. In a professional environment such as a business meeting I might refer to my other half as my partner, in a social setting with a group of people in a bar I might refer to them as my lover, while to family I might refer to them as my friend.

    In my opinion it should only really matter what people think if they are close to me, and if they are that close to me then they wouldn’t care about something so trivial.

    I couldn’t care less what a random person I’m just meeting might think, their thoughts are out of my control and none of my business. Their opinion (read judgement) means very little to me.

    The only people who matter are the ones in our lives permanently, and they are probably still in our lives because these things don’t matter. Would any of us really want to know people who judge others based on who they are sleeping with? I wouldn’t, and these people never make it past the screening stage for me ;)