Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Beyond "Boyfriend" and "Girlfriend"

Last Friday I was delighted to be a return guest on the Wisconsin Public Radio Show "At Issue with Ben Merens" (audio available here). Our ostensible topic was "words of the summer" (including skadoosh, of course!), but once we started taking calls from listeners, the floor was open to any topic of interest to word-savvy Wisconsinites. Much like what happened when I was on the show last December, conversation turned to perceived "gaps" in the English language that callers thought should be filled with new coinages. This time around, Robert from Coloma expressed dissatisfaction with the words boyfriend and girlfriend, suggesting a new word to cover both: inti-mate.

Robert's idea is to take the adjective intimate and pronounce the final syllable as mate. (That's actually how the verb form of intimate, meaning "give to understand; imply as a possibility" is pronounced, but no matter.) I thought this was a clever suggestion, putting a new spin on old words, but I'm not holding my breath for inti-mate to displace boyfriend and girlfriend any time soon.

Robert is hardly alone in his feeling that boyfriend and girlfriend are inappropriate terms to refer to grown adults in committed relationships. Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio show "A Way With Words" (and an old friend of VT) often hears from callers with similar complaints. As Grant recently told USA Today, "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. There are a ton of different options and none of them seems to work."

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, agrees. "People feel a real need for a term that refers to one's romantic partner that does not sound childish," he told USA Today. "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, if you didn't know, is an acronymic census designation from the late '70s, standing for "Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters.")

What do you think? Are boyfriend and girlfriend too juvenile? Is partner too business-like? Is lover too blunt? Or is it time for a brand-new word to enter the picture, like inti-mate?


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 15th 2008, 2:41 AM
Comment by: Matthew John Z.
Excuse me if I'm off-base or archaic here, but as soon as I saw the lead graf referring to "inti-mate," I had to stop and check my brain.
I always thought that "intimate," as a noun, referred to a person of close personal relationship.
Flipping the word around to pronounce it as the verb form confuses the issue.

PLEASE, don't think that I'm lacking in humor or appreciation of the subject. I just read this at a late hour, and started grinding grammatical gears involuntarily!

I've actually resorted to referring to a "significant other,"
particularly one whose marital/engagement status is unknown to me,
as an "S.E." -- Spousal Equivalent.

Z
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 2:57 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
"Main Squeeze" works for me.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 7:59 AM
Comment by: larry A.
As a resident of a (very) senior living community I can see the advantage of such a term. We have 250 units, mostly singly occupied and about a dozen of the 40 or so with couples are unmarried. In our age bracket such alliances are often financially driven, but that doesn't alter the situation.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 8:20 AM
Comment by: Kenneth R.
Works for me, but pronouncing "intimate" like the verb form is both confusing and tin-eared. By the way, opposition to "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" isn't confined to middle-aged partners. Many college students dislike the terms as well, perhaps because of the way they imply exclusivity and commitment.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 8:36 AM
Comment by: Debra S. (Mt Victoria Australia)
Partner is just fine so far as I'm concerned as I don't just see it as a business arrangment. The word "partner" when applied to a relationship means, to me, a relationship where both parties have equal responsibilities and rights, are working together towards mutual goals, who support each other in times of trouble and in achieving mutual and individual goals and who are there to recognise and congratulate personal and shared achievements, among other things.

Maybe it's a different country/different meaning thing but if someone told me their relationship was boyfriend/girlfriend I would assume that they WEREN'T in a committed relationship or living together but in a romantic relationship that is getting serious but not yet engaged to be married or planning to live together. Even so, they are still not suitable words for adults in romantic relationship of any sort.

You might find the Australian Social Security Act definition interesting. A member of a couple is called a partner (whether married or not) and a person is regarded as a member of a couple, generally, if their relationship is "marriage-like" see Section 4 of the Social Security Act 1991: ( link) and the Guide to Social Security Law: ( link).
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Bonnie R.
Faced with this dilemma at age 53, I have gone back to the term "sweetheart". Though a bit old fashioned, it implies something of feeling, which is lacking in other options.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Renee
I admit I did feel weird calling my now second husband "boyfriend" when we were dating. "Sweetheart" worked for us, but what about a new word...."datemate"?
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Lynne M. (Brighton United Kingdom)
"Partner" is used in the UK with no assumption of business-like-ness. In fact, you'd pretty much have to say "business partner" if you meant that, otherwise people would assume you're an item. "Partner" tends to be used for live-in arrangements, but I know various couples who keep separate homes who use it--it indicates a level of seriousness and interdependence. "Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" don't.

Although we got married last year, I still refer to my Better Half as my "partner", since it seems to me a more feminist term than "husband" and "wife".
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Nancy V.
What a fun topic! But love has been the discussion of the ages. Everyone who has had a relationship that transcends all words knows that words are no longer necessary and are fortunate indeed. The smile says it all!
However, when pressed to express consider this: My son is my son even though he was not conceived by me nor delivered from my womb. I do not feel the need to add "adopted" son when I introduce him as my son or do my taxes. Does he become a POSSLQ for census purposes when I can no longer claim him as son on my taxes and he hasn't left the nest?
In this modern society it seems all things change faster than the words to express them! So when in doubt smile and use whatever word you want. You will be thought of as an enigma or idiot, but it doesn't really matter. There is always tomorrow and plenty of words.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 9:58 AM
Comment by: kimiko M. (New York, NY)
There's an angle here that has not really been discussed. That is - living in NY I encounter this frequently with other singles - when you have a very casual sexual relationship with someone where 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' would be making it more serious than it need be but 'lover' sounds dated and falls short of describing the whole relationship. I've heard 'friend with benefits' but don't think that covers it either.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Rene P. (Allen, TX)
I prefer "Love Bunny."
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Seems as though this topic has some legs, Ben. Inti-mate (long-a) does work on multiple levels, but it actually falls short because of its utter cleverness. In my view, it's just too clever to really catch on as a mainstream term.

If there will be a future term that really replaces boy/girlfriend, I think it will likely be spearheaded by a sitcom writer. I can see the next "Friends" or "Seinfeld"-style breakthrough show coming up with a new, hip term for this word gap. I think a popular sitcom is uniquely situated to do this because a national audience will be exposed to it at approximately the same time, allowing the new term to be tested, and develop roots, during water cooler chat.

Ben, I wonder if there could be a future Word Routes column that ponders what - if any - words have entered the common lexicon via sitcoms?
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Lauren S. (Ann Arbor, MI)
No no no no no. "Inti-mate" totally makes me think of "panties," and Ben, you *must* know how much women hate the word "panties"!!!!

blogged: http://polyglotconspiracy.net/index.php/archives/2008/07/15/ignore-indulge-inti-mate
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 11:08 AM
Comment by: Catherine S. (Salem, OR)
I agree that "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" sound like the relations isn't really serious. I used "partner" for years because of the many dimensions of the word, but it is a bit too formal for everyday use for me. So I have tended to use "sweetie" for several year now: it indicates commitment, it doesn't restrict or even indicate gender, and the emotional tone it sets is about affection rather than sex or economics.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Caitlin D. (Madison, WI)
My dating friends (mostly in their late 20s)tend to use the phrase "the person I'm seeing."
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 12:15 PM
Comment by: Lauren S. (Ann Arbor, MI)
What, no html?!?
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 12:55 PM
Comment by: James D.
I confess I revert to Irish Gaelic for "mo chroi", or "my heart". I've also used "ladyfriend" for her. At 54, she is the lady I dated 30 years ago, then we got broke up by well meaning friends, married others, and are now divorced. We've actually occasionally referred to each other as each other's "second chance"
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 2:02 PM
Comment by: Phil (Tucson, AZ)
How about introducing the friend as Bob, my friend, or mary, my friend. The friend's name tells you that they are of the opposite sex. I say let people think how serious the relationship is by your actions and expressed feelings. It's none of their business anyway. Throw Gays into the mix and it gets even more complicated. If the friend is more than a casual friend make it "My special friend, Bob." Using old words and expecting everyone to watch a Seinfeld episode to get your "new" meaning is dumb. The English language is incredibly rich. I can't believe that people can't explain what they mean without inventing new words. Ginormous? Please!
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 3:30 PM
Comment by: J.P.R. (New York, NY)
I agree with Lauren S. "Inti-mate" sounds like panties.
A "love bunny" sounds like a couple whose sole M.O. is to
procreate exponentially.

I tend towards --
My Mrs...
Sweet thang...
My girl...
The girl that I'm dating (seeing)...
Spontaneous terms of endearment that inevitably evolve,
and may employ onotamopoeic devices.
And other iterations therefore, thereof.
like that.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 5:08 PM
Comment by: Graeme R.
Are "exclusivity and commitment" really snarl words? It may not be in tune with the times, but I believe those terms express what true "living together" is all about. When people live together without being married because marriage is too exclusive and committed, maybe it would be most honest to refer to each other as experimates. They're trying this to see whether it works, and if not they'll try some others who become significant.
Wednesday July 16th 2008, 6:33 AM
Comment by: Andy S.
Having been a participant in two intimate relationships that fall outside of the norm, I've found that the trouble isn't so much with the lack of the right words to describe oneself and the other.
But more about ones willingness to authentically name the nature of the relationship in public.

e.g.
A man and a woman in their 50s may actually be conducting relationship of a purely sexual nature. "Hot shag" may most accurately describe this relationship. And in this case, using any term that suggests more commitment or intimacy would be disingenuous on the part of the participants. However "hot shag" doesn't go down well in polite society. And so, nothing is said, or code words are used. "Girlfriend", "umm-friend", "friend with benefits" etc.

Those near and dear to the man and woman conducting the relationship may have their own expectations and/or agendas about what the relationship "means".
And in the absence of any word from the participants, [and outrageously sometimes despite what the participants say] people will seek to overlay meaning using a context that suits them.

So if we're looking for code words, I think we should pick something new. But it will need to transcend space, time and religion.

And therein lies the rub. ;) Anyone....anyone?
Wednesday July 16th 2008, 2:28 PM
Comment by: wendEwho
I have been in a committed, long-term relationship with a man who is 15 years older than me for about 5 years. I am turning 41 this summer and the term "boyfriend" just doesn't quite work.
We call each other "ipo" or "ku'u ipo" which is a Hawaiian term of endearment. In a social situation I usually use "my sweetie". When filing out any paperwork; on the line where it asks for an "emergency contact name and number" and that person's "relationship" to you - I write "dear friend"
I love inventing new words though and frankly my friends have come to expect it! - - I have been using GIANORMOUS for YEARS!!
Friday July 18th 2008, 1:00 PM
Comment by: Billie K. (New York, NY)
The english language has always been in process of revision, it is not static. Gianormous is one of my favorite words. And it is time for a new word that evokes the essence of the love, companionship, bond and belonging. I prefer to introduce them as the love of my life or true love, but since I haven't met that person yet, it would be misleading and awkward. Significant other actually implies significance. I often introduce my dates just by their names. Otherwise I would say this is my friend, so and so. Boyfriend is a casual reference with some attachment. Or can be more. I personally despise the term Ladyfriend it feels fleeting and somewhat disrespectful. How about ManLove or WomanLove?
Saturday July 19th 2008, 1:08 PM
Comment by: Laurie P. (Los Angeles, CA)
Great Topic! This is an ongoing irritation. I'm 67. I've been in a committed loving relationship with a guy for 20 years. We don't live together. We use "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." He doesn't seem to mind it at all. I find it a little childish -- It seems to imply that I, the (female) speaker, am somehow trying to appear younger. I like "main squeeze." We both use "sweetie" or "my sweetie pie." Also "my honey" "my honey-bunch."

I live in Los Angeles, and here, at least where I live, the word "partner," especially when used by a woman, implies a gay relationship. It also strongly implies living together. But "friend" and "dear friend," to me, could be any one of a number of dear friends -- as I get older I cherish my friends more and more. But not more than I do my honey.

Yes, we need a literate sit-com to help us. Seinfeld? Larry David? Help!!!
Sunday July 20th 2008, 2:31 AM
Comment by: Jana F.
Inti-mate with long /a/ sounds fun, but I still wouldn't be comfortable using it elsewhere but in the circle of my close friends. To me it sounds just like "bed-buddy" and implies not much else but bedroom fun.

I just go with "my date" - that does not give out too much detail. Whether that person is just someone I sleep with or whether we have a regular romantic dating thing going on - whose business is that anyway!?
Ask for details if you dare! ;-)
Sunday July 20th 2008, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Teri F. (Arlington Heights, IL)
I suppose it depends on how intimate you truly are, whether Inti-mate works (I don't care for it...too clunky and the conjuring of female undergarments), the length of the relationship (short-term anything with 'date' may be ok, but sounds too cool and defining something not terribly worthwhile)and the depth of feeling you have for the person you are claiming by definition. I prefer 'my love' to the point it sounds like a single word, like 'milove'. This would describe a long-term, deeply connected relationship. Having tried the other suggestions long ago, I will settle for this.

Does that transcend 'space, time and religion'? I don't know, but it feels good.
Sunday July 20th 2008, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Muriel M.
How about "Sweetheart"? As long as I do not have to write the term on a governmental form it probably works well in most situations. I am not likely to use it to refer to a date, a casual friend, or someone with whom I am not romantically involved or committed.
Monday July 21st 2008, 3:26 PM
Comment by: Karkle (Austin, TX)
As a biker, I really like "This is my Ol'lady" (or Ol' Man) -- seems to work in the whole community regardless of age
Wednesday April 15th 2009, 12:39 AM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
In the Sixties, when I was a modern young woman, the term "Ol'lady" and "Ol'Man" were universally understood to mean a monogomous sexual relationship (at least for the moment). They did not, however, reveal whether the pair was living together (shacking up), which is an important additional indicator of commitment.

I invented "convivus" and "conviva", from the Latin, but it flopped; not a single person picked it up.

Living with a romantic partner outside of marriage is no longer "living in sin," no longer a "meretricious relationship." It's absurd that a country which invents highly-efficient two-syllable phrases like "Wall Street" and "White House" hasn't come up with a good way to describe a romantic, non-marital relationship between people who have chosen to live together.

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