Monday, September 08, 2008

partner

I looked at my collection of e-mails from readers that request coverage of this or that Americanism or Briticism. The collection contains just those that I've not blogged about yet and that I think have at least a little potential to be an interesting post. At my current rate of one post a week, it'll take me a year to get through them--that is, if each e-mail has only one request in it. Maybe a year and a half, then. And they just keep coming in! If you ever thought I'd be out of bloggable ideas by the third year in, you were wrong. (And we're not even counting the topics on my own lists of questions I want answered, gripes I want to air, and little jigs I want to dance on your computer.)

With such a backlog (the ones that I consider answerable go back a year now), it seems a bit unfair that I'm going to write about the one that arrived today. Blame my mother. Whenever my brother didn't get into trouble when any reasonable person could see he was guilty as sin (He really was on my side of the car seat! And besides, HE'S LOOKING AT ME FUNNY!), my mother would explain "Life isn't fair." I took logic (AmE) in college/(BrE) at university, so I figure/reckon: Life isn't fair, and I'm alive, so I don't need to be fair. Right?

Regular reader/requester Jackie wrote today to request coverage of the BrE use of partner (since some of the requests I'm ignoring in order to do this one are hers, it's not that unfair, is it?) . She sums up the situation:
When I lived in London I was forever getting confused by people referring to their heterosexual partners as their partner. In the U.S., when someone refers to his or her "partner," it usually means the other person is the same gender. Or that they are in business together, a source of frequent confusion here. I don't know if it's worth discussing, but do you know how the words acquired the narrower meaning in the U.S. (or the broader reading in the U.K.)?
I am going to come out of the closet and tell you that I LOVE partner! In the UK, it is the unmarked--which is to say normal, usual-- way to refer to the person you share your life with (but usually aren't married to). It's gender-free, works as well for gay and straight relationships, doesn't infantali{s/z}e either party. It's wonderful. In fact, I love it so much, that it's still how I refer to Better Half, even though the law has intervened and I could call him my husband now. It's just such a grown-up, practical word, and I feel grown-up saying it. (I think I'll be at least 70 before I stop getting a kick out of being an adult.)

Jackie asks how it came to be this way. How? Hard to tell without a lot of etymological research, which I haven't the wherewithal to do now. But I can tell you this: the OED has examples of partner meaning 'spouse' going back to Milton (17th century). The business sense goes back a to the 15th century. In between, the word was extended to include dancing partners and bridge partners, etc. The OED comments:

Now increasingly used in legal and contractual contexts to refer to a member of a couple in a long-standing relationship of any kind, so as to give equal recognition to marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, etc.
But it doesn't say when that 'now' started. Milton notwithstanding, it does have the feeling of a modern use. I've heard older BrE speakers expressing discomfort with the term ("that's what they all call it nowadays, isn't it?"), although I think the real discomfort isn't the word partner but the fact that their children are (chiefly AmE) shacking up instead of getting married.

Why don't Americans use it so generally? Probably because gay and lesbian folk started using it, and no one wanted to be mistaken for gay/lesbian, so they avoid it--though the official story is that it 'sounds too business-y'. What do Americans use instead? All sorts of things--there just isn't an unproblematic and widely accepted equivalent. They use boyfriend/girlfriend, significant other, lover and write articles like this.

The fact that it sounds 'business-y' is part of its appeal to me. It doesn't traipse into the emotional or bedroom details of your relationship. It acknowledges that you have to work together with anyone who's such a deep part of your life, that you share goals and assets and responsibilities. And I suspect that is a reason it's found popularity in the UK--it talks about a personal part of your life without getting into the private details. That and the fact that co-habiting relationships (including same-sex relationships) are treated with more seriousness and respect in British law these days, so they require a term that can be used in officialdom as well as by someone wanting to mention the person who picks their dirty socks up off the floor (with only the pleasure of self-satisfied eye-rolling as payment).

Generally (in BrE), if your refer to someone as your partner, people will assume that you live together. But I can think of at least two committed pairs I know who don't live together but who use the term for each other. That's how I can tell when my friends have become serious about the people they're seeing--they start calling him/her 'my partner'.

By the way, I'm retiring the Canadian Count. I've had a few lately, but I've lost count and I think it was only amusing me--and less and less so.

36 comments:

John Cowan said...

I, a Yank of the Yanks, said partner for five years of cohabitation, explaining as and when necessary. Then I happily switched to saying wife, and have done so lo, these last 25 years.

The Other Significant Other in my life (yes, they know about each other, I'm faithful to both my partners) refers to me as her boyfriend, but to me girlfriend sounds inappropriately teenage, so I avoid it.

Dan said...

I think it's quickly getting a lot more popular in the US too. I used to always say "my boyfriend", on the grounds that "my partner" made it sound like we fought crime. But after hearing more and more straight couples use the word in the life/domestic/romantic partner sense in the last few years, I started using it too. These days if someone says "my partner", I tend to assume they're using it in the "new" sense.

James said...

Ugh. I hate 'partner'. I think it's the only thing I don't like about Australia. I won't use it till I start calling people "individuals" and starting "purchasing" things.

I think we should liberate "husband" and "wife" from their associations with officialdom. The words and concepts were surely around long before state recognition of them. Several years ago, someone told me that a colleague and his wife weren't officially married. I thought that was great. It is marriage and everyone treats it as one, but they didn't feel the need to tell someone in some government building or bother their colleagues with the official details of their relationship.

Maybe the reason I don't like "partner" is that while it does remove the intimate details of the relationship from the conversation, it inserts the political details, which are usually more painful.

Wow. Apparently I needed to vent.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I had no idea "partner" referred to a same-sex partner in America (I'm Canadian). I always assumed it referred to someone in a committed, long-term relationship, whether homo- or heterosexual, but (crucially) without the actual marriage.

Have I just been misunderstanding all this time, or is it possible that the word is just used more in the British sense in Canada?

disgruntled said...

I still hesitate over 'my husband' (after fifteen+ years of marriage...) and I had real problems when we were engaged - 'my fiancé' just sounded so horribly twee, as though I were about to thrust out my left hand and demand everyone admire my ring. So I think partner's a great word, although on the whole I refer to him by his name, and let the listener work out the relationship. (British, married to an American)

Actually, after several years of blogging it's quite hard not to refer to him in speech as 'the other half'... (surely a phrase that was dying out in speech before the internet took it up in spades)

Paul said...

In the bridge world another term for partner is 'centre hand opponent'.

It is often more apt.

lynneguist said...

anon, I wouldn't say that it 'means' homosexual in AmE, but that if people say it, one tends to assume. As others have noted, it can be used for anyone, it just rarely is...

James, it has no political connotations here...

dunce said...

I strongly tend to use the word "partner" to refer to my wife, even when I travel to the US where we both have family (and where we both grew up). I like the way it allows avoiding the awkward fumbling about for the right term for an unmarried domiciliary partner whether same-sex or not, and without making additional assumptions of their intentions: boyfriend? lover? roommate with benefits? better half? significant other? (and, after all, "living in sin" is hard to nounify).

I must admit I keep using it in the US because I like to irritate those who are offended or at least surprised by the same-sex connotations of "partner" (definitely the case for some residents of the small towns of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana inhabited by various family members of mine).

An acquaintance from rural Poland once told me that I do not have a "wife" because our union is sanctioned only by the state and not by the church. I said "that's fine, she's my partner".

I do refer to my wifely partner as "Mrs Dunce" when blogging (ever so rarely at the moment) but that's one of those blog things where for some reason I felt I should not use her real name, but still some kind of proper noun...

Anonymous said...

sorry, I meant "unmarried domiciliary partner" as just one example of a case where I like the availability of "partner", rather than the only case where it applies nicely.
-dunce

Robin said...

How is it possible to be certain that Milton is using "partner" to mean "spouse"? For example, if Adam addresses Eve as "partner", he may simply be emphasising their joint responsibilty for tending the garden - in this case his partner also happens to be his spouse, but the words aren't synonymous. (However, I don't have the OED in front of me - maybe the reference is to a legal text where the precise meaning is clearer).

Robin

fauxklore said...

I also hear partner for heterosexual couples more and more frequently in the U.S.. My personal favorite term is "ummer," invented by Miss Manners in honor of people saying, "this is my um ... er."

Usually I get around the whole thing by using his name and letting people figure out what they will.

Andrew R said...

It's probably not very helpful to the thread , but I have a fondness for a Californian state classification from a few years back - POSSLQ [which is nicely sayable as well], being a Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters

Anonymous said...

"and little jigs I want to dance on your computer"

This is one of the loveliest descriptions of the relationship of blogger to blogee (bloggee?) that I've ever seen.

mollymooly said...

@james: what got me in Australia was people saying "this is my de facto"

lynneguist said...

This is the first time this week that I've naughtily checked my gmail account (hence my comments) while at the office. Let's not make this a habit. Must get work done!

But the connection to the OED is much faster here, so here are the early examples of partner=spouse (etc.) from that. Note that the early ones tend to be modified by 'in life' or similar:

"1667 MILTON Paradise Lost X. 128, I stand Before my Judge, either to undergoe My self the total Crime, or to accuse My other self, the partner of my life. 1749 T. SMOLLETT Regicide II. viii. 27 What means the gentle Part'ner of my Heart? 1789 A. FRANCIS Poet. Transl. Song of Solomon Pref. p. viii, She speaks but little; just enough to convince her royal partner of the preference her heart gives him. 1816 R. SOUTHEY Poet's Pilgrimage I. I. viii, So forth I set..And took the partner of my life with me. 1879 F. W. FARRAR Life & Work St. Paul II. IX. xxxii. 69 The believing wife or husband might win to the faith the unbelieving partner. 1884 W. CUDWORTH Dial. Sketches 112 He cud liv o' luv, if shoo wor nobbut his pairtner. "

dan, just clicked on the 'we fight crime' link. What fun! (back to work! back to work!)

and latest anon, thanks for the compliment. it's always nice to know if one gets things right.

Jill said...

I have an opposite of a Canadian experience to report (and I assure you you were amusing me as well!).

I (American living in England) was talking with someone who had known me for a few months but had never asked about my provenance. He was telling me a story, and then he paused, suddenly realising that he was making an assumption, and interjected, "You're not Canadian, are you?" When I confirmed I'm not, he nodded and went on with the story.

It was fun seeing another approach to the more common "Oh, are you Canadian?" question.

Robin said...

Thanks for looking up the OED reference. I feel that the use of the "of my life", etc. qualifiers indicates that the word on its own still has the sense of "partner in some activity". When the activity is life, then the partner is indeed the spouse. But the citations show how the word approaches its modern meaning little by little (!)

Robin

flatlander said...

When I (AmE) was little my uncle had a live-in non-wife whom my mother (orig. from Texas) always referred to as his "partner", presumably to shield us young 'uns from the truth of her brother's iniquitous liaison. For ages I thought they were in business together and found it odd that they only had one bedroom.

Does BrE use "babydaddy" and "babymama" to refer to relationships that are partnerships in only the procreative sense?

cheri wilke said...

When I was working at a university, one of the dean's there (female) referred to her 'partner' who was getting ready to head off to Iraq. I assumed she was gay as in Seattle the term is used, most often than not, for homosexual relationships. Turns out her partner is male. I never asked. I found out because she told me an amusing story of how her students all thought she was a lesbian because she was in the military and she referred to her 'partner' instead of her boyfriend or fiance'. She said that where she is from (Virginia?) the term 'partner' was common for a heterosexual relationship that was committed. So maybe in the US, it can be regional term.

Canadian said...

I heard someone refer to her "partner" back in 2000 and I assumed she meant a woman (otherwise she would have said "boyfriend", right?) for quite some time. But then I met him and it was a him after all. She was from Vermont.

But now I hear it more and more from my fellow Canadians. It is ridiculous for a 40 year old to refer to the person he/she has been sharing his/her life with for the last 10 years as a boyfriend/girlfriend. The French terms (Canadian French, that is) are even more ridiculous: mon chum, ma blonde. However, conjoint(e) can refer to a spouse whether legal or not.

Angie said...

Someone mentioned the term "de facto", which I've used a lot (in Aus), and is widely understood here. It's an odd term, though and I use it less now. After 22 years I still don't quite know how to refer to him. Sometimes, usually with tradespeople and strangers, I just say "husband".

I found it interesting that when my daughter started school I discovered that among her new friends, only one set of parents were married. And that took a few years to discover; I guess it's not a big deal anymore.

Anonymous said...

In my experience (Californian), "partner" is used more on the gay side than on the straight side.

My impression is that the default American mindset is "boy-/girlfriend" becomes "fiance(e)" becomes "husband/wife." As the last two categories were legally forbidden to same-sex couples, that left only "boy-/girlfriend", but their connotation was too lightweight, too temporary, for long-term, serious relationships. "Partner" emerged as an alternative.

Fortunately, here in California, people who have been together for decades are finally, legally, becoming husbands and wives.

However, "partner" is becoming more common for any-sex non-married couples. I wonder whether the UK/US differences have to do with the social acceptability of shacking up together. The shift from "boy-/girlfriend" to "partner" is a public declaration that we're not just romantically interested, but we're living together without the benefit of marriage. I get the impression that the UK is not as prudish as we in the US are; could that explain greater UK use of partner for opposite-sex couples?

bill said...

I think that Anonymous has something there. I first got a hint of the different standards for "shacking up" while watching the final season of Coupling. Steve and Susan decided to have a baby, while still not married. That sort of plotline would never fly over here. If the baby were not planned, that is one thing...but to plan to have a baby while out of wedlock would be pretty taboo over here still.

Ruth said...

flatlander, you reminded me that my mother used to refer to relatives' unmarried partners as "the outlaws" (to contrast with "in-laws"), or occasionally things like "the nephew-out-law." I think she gave it up because my brother's partners have never been the kind of women to find that funny.

Doug Sundseth said...

Since there have been comments like, "I just say 'husband'", it might be worthwhile to mention that it is well to be careful where you do that. In places where common-law marriage is recognized, that might be sufficient to create a marriage in law.

Actual requirements vary by jurisdiction. For an example of the law in such a jurisdiction, see this page at the Colorado Attorney General's site.

Caveat: I'm not a lawyer; talk to a lawyer if you want a legal opinion that you can rely on.

disgruntled said...

We had the opposite problem in the UK (to the one Doug mentions) - because people talk about 'common law' husbands or wives, they thought there was some legal status to long-term live-in partners, when in fact there is none, and no such thing legally as a common law spouse.

Roger Owen Green said...

as a business librarian (US) O've alwats chafed at "partber" for personal relationships, but. In my circle it's used more for gay couples, though not exclusively.

But I'm intrigued with the reader using "outlaws", which is the jokey way my wife's brothers' wives and I refer collectively to ourselves and our families in relationship to my wife's family.

lynneguist said...

I used 'out-law' to refer to my current in-laws before BH and I were married--but I had to explain it every time I said it.

nat said...

Glad to see a couple of people (bill and preceding Anonymous) mentioning the difference between US and non-US attitudes to marriage. I was thinking the same thing. "Partner" is something you say if you're not married, and I've always had the very strong impression that in the US, people seem to marry as soon as the relationship becomes serious enough (if not before!); elsewhere, that step seems a lot more optional. So in the States, the only people who would normally need the term "partner" are people not permitted by law to marry, i.e. same-sex couples.

This difference in attitudes might also be why gay activists in the USA seem to be somewhat more passionate about the issue of marriage equality than their counterparts the UK or Australia (where many are content with civil unions or even "de facto" status).

Boak said...

I'm British and I've always thought partner sounded a bit formal and pompous. I tend to refer to my significant other as "the other half" and he calls me "the missus".

But some interesting distinctions raised here...

Anonymous said...

I heard the term "convivant" a while back on A Way With Words and thought it was fairly apt.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, we need a new word. I can understand that boyfriend/girlfriend is too juvenile, and husband/wife may have uncomfortable overtones for some, but it really can get confusing. Case in point: I recently had cause to interview a number of architectural firms for a prospective house build. The principals of one such firm consisted of two men who were clearly both gay, but when one introduced the other as his "partner", I was at a loss as to the nature of their relationship - business, personal or both. On a related note, some years back I was coming through customs at LAX from Sydney, and I watched with amusement as the (not married) Australian couple in front of me tried - unsuccessfully - to explain the "de-facto" concept to the customs official as the basis of why they were both standing at the counter together rather than one at a time(!)

Hayley said...

I've only recently started to use partner, and it was (at least I think it was) a conscious decision to. Graduating and looking to embark on a career, I didn't want to explain my move to the area as 'to be with my boyfriend'. I am young, so I made the change in order to try and be taken seriously. At first, even as BrE speaker, it did feel a little unnatural, but now it does come quite easily to me. I do think the fact we've now moved in together does cement things, and to call him my boyfriend does sound a bit like I'm fourteen again.

Not having a fiance or a hubby, and with boyfriend sounding immature, I suppose all I've got left is partner. Or The Bloke.

Aviatrix said...

I'm Canadian, and find "partner" to be a neutral term. It's a little like the way giving your title as "Ms." doesn't give away whether you are married are not. You can refer to someone else in your life and not give away whether you're gay, straight or married.

ff6m said...

It actually kind of bothers me that the breeders [here in the US] are starting to use the term partner. GLBT people are not widely accepted enough to have our lingo taken away from us yet. I feel secure in understanding the word partner as "same-sex lover," because I know that that person is someone I can generally trust if they use the term. Actually, I very, very rarely hear the term applied to an opposite-sex relationship - and I live in a rather liberal state. I don't really like the term applied to same-sex relationships because it sounds so business-like, but the gay connotation it has makes me more comfortable with it when I hear it, so it is better than nothing and there really isn't an as-distinctive option.

On a side note, I hate that people still use the term [and practice the ritual (for lack of a better word) of having/being a] fiancee. What does that mean? You're getting married, at some point? It bothers me because people often use the term for years before the marriage actually occurs. I think the term should only be used when a date is set and it is actually going to happen. Too many people (especially people my age - around 18-25) use it so loosely. It often simply says "I am ridiculously obsessed with my boyfriend/girlfriend for the time being!!!!!!!" - and they end up breaking up after dating for three months or so.

Back to the partner issue, I think that even if we legalized same-sex marriage and I were to marry a man, I would still use the term "partner" because I don't want to use a breeder label ("husband/wife"). ...But I do realize that my aversion to the straights is my own personal issue.

Anonymous said...

I don't like "partner", simply because it's confusing. At a recent business party a man introduced another man as his "partner". Without actually asking outright, it took a few minutes of listening to understand that they were in business together, not in a sexual relationship.
To me, one's partner is someone with whom one is in business, in the same firm or practice or is paired up in some other way, eg police officers. It doesn't imply anything else.
I was going out with a dentist and rang her office. The receptionist was very unpleasant. I later mentioned this to the dentist. She replied, "Yes, I know. But what can I do. She's screwing my partner." In this case the meaning was clear. Her "partner" was the man with whom she shared the dental practice. The one who shared the other things was me.