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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 5, No. 4, 2006
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward



Howard Richler is the author of The Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language. Global Mother Tongue: The Eight Flavours of English by Véhicule Press will appear in autumn of 2006 and Can I Have a Word With You?, Ronsdale Press, is in the works for 2007.


Help give my partner/girlfriend a proper name

I will give my heart to you,
if you will be my POSSLQ.
Unless you solemnly confess,
you are really OTPOTSS.
(a postmodern love poem)

Some weeks ago I chanced upon a woman I hadn’t seen for a while frequenting a local area dog run. In chatting, I mentioned obliquely that I was in a relationship, and in an innocuous context referred to "my partner." To which she loudly blared, "You’re gay!" as several onlookers and a bull mastiff eyed me menacingly. I clarified for her that I had not recently "switched teams" (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and that the aforementioned "partner" was indeed a lady. She instructed me, "Howard, only gays have partners. She’s your girlfriend."

While I am aware that the term "partner" has been somewhat expropriated by the gay community, as a member of the half century club I have a difficult time referring to someone more or less of my vintage as my "girlfriend." It’s too sophomoric-sounding.

Alas, in the post-"Leave it to Beaver" era, the nomenclature of relationships is quite thorny. Many people involved in relationships have forsaken the institution of marriage, and as result, knowing the proper way of referring to these "involved" individuals is quite problematic and potentially embarrassing. This is perhaps the reason the USA census of 1980 proposed the term in my poem "POSSLQ" (pronounced possil-queue), which stands for "Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters." Unfortunately, this acronymic suggestion satisfied only bureaucrats. Word maven William Safire offered the modified PASSLQ -- "Person of an Appropriate Sex Sharing Living Quarters" -- as he felt this term was more inclusive of those involved in same-sex relationships. Of course, in our overly-sensitive age, even this latter term might offend someone sharing living quarters with an iguana instead of a human.

It was in this spirit of political correctness that the British Department of Trade and Industry some years ago drafted new anti-discrimination laws because it felt that "homosexual" was "no longer the way forward in defining sexual orientation," and opted instead for the designation OTPOTSS, which stands for "Orientation Towards People of the Same Sex." This is unlikely to catch on once people realize that "otpotss" is an anagram of "tosspot," a British term for an unpleasant person.

While the English language has innumerable ways of expressing many concepts, it lacks even one suitable word to describe those partaking in a "mature" relationship. For example, consider the options someone of the baby boom generation has to describe the person he/she is "dating." "Boyfriend/girlfriend" sounds somewhat absurd for people whose adolescence ended before the moon landing. Other people opt for "partner" but this term is misleading not only because it connotes a same-sex relationship for many, but because it also can be misconstrued as referring to a business arrangement. Other options are equally unsatisfactory; "lover" and "paramour" are too blatant, "soul mate" is too strong, "friend" and "companion" are fuzzy, "main squeeze" is just plain silly, and "man/woman in my life" and "significant other" are too euphemistic. (In any case, the latter sounds like the subject of a sociology dissertation.)

Also, when a couple are actually sharing living quarters, the designation "boyfriend/girlfriend" sounds too weak to describe the relationship, but a term such as "cohabitor" is an antiseptic and clinical alternative. Some people opt for the term "mate" but others find that the term evokes either the high seas or Australia. Surprisingly, many therapists have started referring to two people involved in a long-term relationship as "spouses," but to the layman the term still refers strictly to a husband or wife.

Some languages have paid more attention to this nomenclature dilemma. In German, lebenspartner refers to "life partner"; if you have adequate breath, you can jocularly refer to your beloved as lebensabschnittpartner ("lap," for short) which adds abschnitt, "section," to the equation, creating an oxymoronic temporary life partner. Norwegian has the term samboer and Swedish the term sambo, "together liver," which derives from the verb bo, "to live, to dwell." In Danish, the term used is samlever. These terms a can be used to describe a person of either sex with whom one lives but to whom one is not legally married. However, the Scandinavians are so etymologically liberal that Swedish even has a term for romantic partners who have decided to live apart – särbo.

Ironically, some languages have looked to English for relationship-word inspiration. In Thai, the word "fan" (as in "enthusiast") is used to refer to a person with whom one is involved romantically, be it a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse. And although the French language has at times been accused of dreading anglicisms, interestingly, in Quebec this problem of nomenclature has been somewhat solved by the importation of an English word. The term chum (sometimes spelled tchum) is often used to refer to one’s love interest.

If a Canadian francophone can use an English word, I think it is proper that we reciprocate and use a French term to describe those in a romantic relationship. In any case, French is the language of romance and the following passionate exchange in Woody Allen’s comic classic Bananas highlights this fact:

Fielding (played by Woody Allen): I love you, I love you.
Nancy (played by Louise Lasser) : Oh, say it in French! Oh, please say it in French!
Fielding : I don’t know French. How about Hebrew?
Nancy : Oh.

Increasingly, here in Quebec I hear the word conjoint being used to fill this lexicographic void. Personally, I prefer the word "co-vivant," because it works for a couple living in the same abode, and although technically it means the same as "cohabitor," it rolls off the tongue a lot better.

So, I implore Arts & Opinion readers to help solve this nomenclature problem. Please e-mail your suggestions to me at and let me finally give my partner/girlfriend/mate/ cohabitor/co-vivant Carol a proper designation.

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