If you’ve ever seen the movie “Young Frankenstein,” and I hope you have, you’ll remember a climactic scene when the mysterious Frau Blucher (neigh!) drops a bomb about the late Dr. Frankenstein.
“Yes!” she roars triumphantly, accompanying herself on violin. “He! Was! My! BOYFRIEND!”
As Frau Blucher is clearly meant to be of a certain age and Dr. Frankenstein had an adult grandson, this is a hilarious laugh line. And it points out a perennial problem with terminology for single persons who have achieved a certain level of … I’m going with “maturity” here, rather than “decrepitude.”
How do you refer to a person you’ve been dating long enough to merit a title?
Oh sure, you can start out with “this guy I’ve been out with a few times” or “a woman I’ve been dating recently,” which is awkward and unromantic but clear. And everyone who hears this understands that it’s very early days yet, no sort of commitment has been made, and one wrong move involving table manners, evidence of loose morals or incompatibility with a pet could delete this person from all relevance entirely.
But suppose someone hangs in for a few months and is starting to play a larger role in your life? “Boyfriend” or “girlfriend” is perfectly appropriate when you’re not much more than a boy or a girl, but if you have kids of your own, gray hair or an estate plan, it fits about as well as a pair of skinny jeans.
Eventually, if you don’t take the terminologically easy way out and get married, you can go to “partner,” though that sounds as if you’re in business together, or “life partner,” which is clearer but suggests shapeless cotton clothes and Birkenstocks.
“My sweetie,” “my honey” or “my boo” sounds even more precious than “boy/girlfriend” coming out of or in reference to anyone over 40, and other epithets like “my man,” “my main squeeze” or, God help us, “my (old) lady” are just going to make everyone uncomfortable. Or should.
(I’ve always found “main squeeze” kind of baffling, which is probably why it went out with disco. All that squeezing sounds uncomfortable. And if this is your main or, as it were, default squeeze, how many secondary or auxiliary or emergency backup squeezes do you have?)
“Significant other” works in some contexts but sounds very 1040, as if you’ve given a person you love this designation for tax purposes. (Itemize all significant others with whom you share living quarters, expenses and/or a bed two (2) or more evenings a week in Schedule SO.)
It sounds all right in a sentence like “Martha has been dating online, but I don’t know whether she has a significant other right now.” But somehow “Upon my death, I wish to bequeath all my worldly goods to Raul, my dear and loving significant other” doesn’t scan quite right.
Some possibilities are nonstarters. If anyone ever refers to me as someone’s “lady-friend” I will die a little inside, and “lover” — well. What restless woman hasn’t wanted to take one? But in real life, it sounds illicit and a bit filthy, no? It certainly paints a picture — one that children will not want to contemplate — and raises the question of whether the happy couple ever gets dressed long enough to go to the movies or make a side dish for book-club potluck.
I’ve always wanted to try “paramour,” which is slightly racy but almost medieval. The whole affair has to be lit by candles or lanterns; the word cannot survive in the presence of a 150-watt bulb.
The best solution I’ve found so far is “beau.” Archly old-timey, neither graphic nor legalistic, it implies that he’s a gentleman but not stiff. Gives him something to live up to. It’s French. For “handsome.” No pressure.
It also comes with a warning label. The plural is formed with an “x.”
Samantha Bennett, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.