Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lexical gaps and 'fixing' language

Today's The Word column by Jan Freeman treats a little lexical oddity in English, one that's related to something that's been floating on ads-l in related form of late: How should we refer to a person somebody has a romantic relationship with but isn't married to?

Freeman starts with the case of Paul Wolfowitz's "girlfriend". (As Wonkette noted when the story was current, the alarming part is that Wolfowitz wasn't/isn't single.) Saying that the now former "World Bank prez" and still "wrong-about-everything-ever neo-con hero" (to quote Wonkette) has a girlfriend is unsettling, just plain does not work. Let's propose a Wolfowitz test: Is there a term to we could apply to Shaha Riza in reference to her relationship with him that does not make us gag?

The ads-l discussion revolved, in good part, around the term fuck buddy. Can't use that in the papers, I imagine. Partner is widely used, but has gotten so common for gay and lesbian couples that it can cause confusion — I've heard it taken to mean specifically same-sex partner when it wasn't intended to. "Significant other" is just awkward. Freeman cites Safire as proposing a return to sweetheart. Right, we'll get on that. Nothing comes close to passing the test. But maybe that's a test no mere lexical item could be expected to pass. (Remember the guy licking his comb? Remember the insane war he worked so hard to get us into?) Maybe, lacking a term to describe such a relationship, Wolfowitz should be condemned to a life of solitude, maybe as in solitary confinement.

Like Jan Freeman, I'm intrigued by these little oddities, what the best current solution is, and where things are headed but consider the bottom line for folks like Safire: As a culture, we have failed to develop a serviceable term for this extremely common relationship. And words are easy to invent, to pick up, to use. Hey, mavens, if you can't fix this one, maybe you should reconsider the whole "saving the language" enterprise.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I believe the lack of an appropriate word is God's way of telling us to cut it out.

Well, no, I don't...

I do believe it's partly because as a society we like to pretend all those folks will get married someday.

The Ridger, FCD said...

On second (serious) thought, isn't the essence of "fuck buddy" that there isn't a romantic relationship?

And, I wonder, what's wrong with "lover"?

Or we could revive "leman".

Anonymous said...

The ridger is right about fuck buddy, the main point (beyond the sex) is that there isn't a romantic relationship involved. "Friends with benefits" works as well, but is too unwieldy to use here. Given the circumstances, I would recommend saying "Wolfowitz's wench". I think that has a nice ring to it.

Ollock said...

Call me archaic or whatever you will, but given the fact that he's already married, mistress sounds pretty fitting here. It may cause a little cough at first, but for me mistress sounds like exactly what an older, married man would have on the side; particularly if that man is quite well off.

The Ridger, FCD said...

For a married man, sure. But the bigger question is what to call a romantically involved couple of singles. I remember well the first time I read of a 40-something politician having a "boyfriend" - it was very weird. It's gotten less so, but it's still odd.

Anonymous said...

Wow, go out for the afternoon and miss a flood of comments.

Yeah, part of the issue is surely that this is socially sensitive for many people, presumably enough that it's hard for the media to figure out what level of directness versus euphemism is appropriate. That's not an issue for me personally, and I *still* have the problem, though.

On 'fuck buddy', yes, the ads-l discussion made the 'benefits without obligation' angle pretty clear, but that surprised me a little since I only ever knew a couple of people who used it and they were clearly using it for couples. (I should have noted that in the post, obviously.) Another reason that's not a viable option!

Isn't Wolfowitz's marital status unclear? I remember something about folks being unable to determine whether he was divorced or still married to a woman he was no longer involved with. Maybe I missed the resolution of that story?

But the Ridger is right about the biggest issue: It's older unmarried couples where it's odd. I've gotten used to 'bf' and 'gf' for younger couples, but for old timers -- no good solution.

Anonymous said...

on the use of mistress, this is problematic because it is one sided. Imagine changing the genders: "Mrs. W got canned by the World Bank because she showed special favors to her mister."

Also, mistress works only when talking about something that takes place in France. Speaking of which what do the French call a male mistress?

wishydig said...

When we were dating I suggested 'leman' to my...uh...girlfriend. She thought it was cute but it wasn't going to work because it sounded like 'lemon' to everyone. And that sounded like she kept breaking down.

Lover has that smarmy red velvet ring to it. Like we have to say it "luvaaah..."

I'm thinking that other might rise to the challenge. It can borrow the momentum from 'significant other' and it's not as unwieldy.