THE SIGNIFICANT OTHER CONUNDRUM
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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: