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?