English Language Fail For Women: Boyfriend

boyfriend_Merriam Webster
Off BeatWomanhood 26 Comments

By Jen Jones – As a 41 year old woman with an extensive vocabulary, a flair for excessively descriptive chatter and a true love of language, I find myself at a complete loss when it comes to making my lips formulate that one perfect word to describe, refer to or introduce one of THE MOST important people in my life… my “boyfriend.”

Truth be told, the innocuous word arouses a visceral reaction in me each and every time I say it. I cringe, while my jaw tightens and my brain races, hoping another, more fitting word will suddenly and surprisingly leap forth from my vibrating vocal chords.

Out of sheer exhaustion from trying to find the RIGHT word (or any word other than “boyfriend” for that matter), I sometimes just resort to… “this is (insert name here)” with no other identifier, but his name, and let people figure it out on their own or leave them to wonder.

I categorize my female specific syndrome and its accompanying symptoms as Unmarried-Hetero-Long-Term-Partner-Identifyer-itis, and I know I am not the only woman who suffers from it.

my boyfriendIt just doesn’t seem right to have only one single, solitary, seemingly juvenile and casual word option at my disposal when referring to the adult man, who has been my partner in life for the greater part of 9 years.

Our lack of a marriage certificate eliminates “husband” and our heterosexual status knocks out “partner.” My personal aversion to inducing the heebie-jeebies in myself AND others within earshot takes “beau” and “lover” right off the table too.

“Significant other”? Um… no. Too clinical and I also can’t pull off the proper British affect this phrase requires to be taken seriously when uttered. Anything involving “half” (i.e. better half, other half, better looking half) is also out of the question, as me, myself and I exist as a whole.

A 40-something friend of mine who finds herself with the exact same linguistic conundrum and aforementioned ailment, compliments of her 13 year relationship, told me, “I’ve toyed around with ‘This my Dude’ as a nod to The Big Lebowski, but I think that might have to come with a whole synopsis handout to explain.”

So where to turn next? Merriam-Webster, of course, my go-to authoritative source for word inspiration and enlightenment. The site defines the noun – “boyfriend” – as a male romantic companion. Makes perfect sense, but that’s just too long and far too creepy for a cocktail party intro, “Oh hey Elaine, I’d like you to meet my male romantic companion (insert name here).” Imagine?

Moving on from the actual definition of the word, let’s have a look at their suggested Synonyms. And so the FAIL begins…

Beau… I already covered that (heebie jeebies).

Boy… I’m not his mother.

Fellow… I might be able to stomach “fella” just for the comedic value of seeing people’s reactions when I say it.

Man… not helpful, stating the obvious.

Old man… that’s just not nice.

Swain… WTF?!?!

Sadly, the Related Words M-W.com offers for “boyfriend” are no better than their synonyms. What’s worse, they straddle a fine line between being super cheesy and you can’t honestly expect a grown woman to say that with a straight face.

Take your pick: admigigolorer, crush, steady, gallant, suitor, wooer, beloved, darling, dear, favorite, flame, honey, love, lover, significant other, soul mate, spark, sparker, squeeze. [SIGH]

M-W’s Slang options also take a big piece of the FAIL cake:

sweet, sweetheart, sweetie, sweetie pie… we’re talking about a person, not a confection.

valentine… yeah, maybe on February 14th, when you’re in the 4th grade.

fancy man… let’s try that cocktail party introduction again, “Oh hey Elaine, I’d like you to meet my fancy man (insert name here).” Imagine?

gigolo, escort… isn’t that illegal?

groom, husband, fiancé, intended… just plain WRONG as these descriptives require things specifically NOT associated with a “boyfriend”, in order: a bride, a wife, an engagement, an in motion plan to be married.

So it seems that I, along with countless other women who suffer from Unmarried-Hetero-Long-Term-Partner-Identifyer-itis, are stuck with “boyfriend”, a silly sounding word that, for me, fails to represent biological maturity, depth of commitment and level of true partnership.

But I’m not giving up. I WILL fight on, in search of a cure, in search of something bigger, better, BOLDER… one word that won’t make me want to scrape my tongue every time I say it.

PS – The vocabulary suggestion box is wide open, so feel free to share any “boyfriend” alternatives you have in the comments section below.

Jen Jones is Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Women You Should Know.

  • Donna

    What is wrong with partner? When did it define a homosexual couple? Many friends live with their partners” in my circle.

    • Jen Jones

      There is nothing wrong with partner at all. In fact, I use the word almost daily to refer to my awesome “business partner”, who I love dearly. Because of that, it feels confusing to me to use the very same word to describe my boyfriend. I also have a gay sister, so as she and her wife have so few rights to begin with, the least I can do is let her have exclusive use of the word “partner” in our family. 🙂

      • nzchicago

        Here in New Zealand, partner is commonly used by all reasonably long-term couples, straight or gay, married or not. It does not have business connotations. Solves the whole problem!

      • Mo

        As a young adult, My friends and I use ‘beau’ or ‘boo’ or ‘love interest’ until things get cereal (which I assume they are with you and your partner after 9 years). Once things are more serious, we always refer to our significant others as partners. And this doesn’t change whether we are in homosexual or heterosexual relationships.

        I’ve actually not heard before that some people consider it only a term for homosexual couples. I don’t think it is generally used exclusively.

    • Icha Icha Alanna

      Ditto. I sometimes use “partner” to describe my boyfriend (been dating for only two months, and are in our early and mid 20’s, so judge not!). But then again, it is also short for “Partner in Crime” in our case. But I like the term partner, regardless of the genders of the couple, because it is non-exclusive (kinda like how I’m not big on the term “gay marriage;” why mark someone’s love as any different?). Once you get to the point of 9 years, “life partner” is definitely legitimate to specify the seriousness and intimacy, without implying any sort of “official” legality.

  • Emilie Vardaman

    I use the Spanish word compaňero. It describes a heterosexual partner. Plus, I like the word!

    • Jen Jones

      I LOVE this word Emilie… thanks for the suggestion! – Jen

  • Dejuitsi

    I’m sorry, but “fancy man” might be the greatest phrase to use in this context.
    Elaine wouldn’t know what to do with herself at the party after that introduction.

  • Debra Salomon Bowler

    what a great piece!! you need to start a blog 🙂

    • Dejuitsi

      I AGREE!

  • Rather than

    I think partner is the perfect word. That’s why it is used in gay relationships – it’s more than a boyfriend but not exactly a husband. I use the term partner to refer to people when I don’t want to assume a marriage – “the class is open to pregnant women and their partners” etc.

  • MyGuy

    how about “this is my guy”?

  • Sue Wilson

    I also get creeped out by the F word…fiance’. It sounds so, I don’t know, formal and icky. Why is it so hard to describe the awesome men in our lives? Manfriend? Sounds a little too close to manwich. I’d say sticking with a cheeky descriptor is the way to go. Fella, Soul Mate (with doe eyes), squeeze. Or you could refer to him as his profession. Hello, this is my…carpenter, photographer, lawyer, lifeguard, bus driver, accountant, vet…and let people figure it out.

    • MeFiftyToo

      I hate fiancé, too. Mostly because I hear so many teens using it, as they plan on getting married “some day.” After your third or fourth fiancé, it sort of loses its romantic oomph.
      I like the term sweetheart, because I’m fond of it as an endearment, but I usually used partner before I was married (I do understand the logic the OP uses for choosing not to, though.)
      I can only imagine introducing my guy with “This H. He’s my product marketing manager.” LOL.

  • gargouille

    Nicely ranted! I think this speaks to a really huge problem, namely, the expectation of marriage. There should be adult language for two people in a lifetime companionship who have never (because they don’t need, want, or have the right to) marry. And I agree that it would be helpful if the word did not conjure up a business transaction the way “partner” does. When a word does not exist or they are all hideously awkward, it means society has not seen fit to acknowledge and embrace the unnamed thing or experience. (And this goes for gay and straight alliances). Adult relationships need a language! I’m counting on WYSK editors and readers to write this small dictionary.

  • KP

    I think partner should work fine – when referring to any business partners one could always switch to using “business associate” or “colleague” or another since there are several appropriate synonyms in that sphere. I also dislike the “girlfriend/boyfriend” label, as I am dating an adult (as I am an adult and to do so otherwise would constitute a whole other world of issues), and it suggests a less mature, less “settled” (for lack of a better word), relationship. Domestic/life, or other romantic partners are not exclusive to non-hetero couples.

    • slh212ny

      I thought I was the only one that hates saying bf. I use baby daddy now. Lightens the weirdness when I pause….

  • Elisa

    What about spouse? I find this to be quite inclusive of everyone.

    • Fran

      But a spouse is a “married person” (actual dictionary definition)… doesn’t work at all.

  • nancy

    I loved this article!! As a 59 year old single woman with a “boyfriend” of 10 years, I too find the word ridiculous so, I too try to come up with appropriate sounding “identifyers” but ultimately fail….thanks for putting the whole situation into words!!

  • digbette

    I am het and use partner, but also ‘boo’. I’m a 38 year old academic and I’m ok with boo… otoh I did ask him to introduce me to all his colleagues at a function as his bitch/ho just to see what they did so I might not take this as seriously….

  • catie

    I’m married – I use husband but do sometimes use, “my one” – Stolen from a Chekhov play. I also use, “my ex-boyfriend”…because well…that’s what he is.

  • Amanda Hertel

    I didn’t see companion in there….And I do agree that after a certain time boyfriend does sound rather juvenile. Probably time to make up a brand new word.

  • Marisa

    Call yourselves whatever you would like. You should define your own relationship. If you want to use spouse even if you aren’t married, go for it! (Maybe just not on your taxes).

    Partner is definitely one of the best words to use though. And saying that it should only mean same sex partner is making same sex couples “other”. Partner are couples, regardless if gender and orientation.

  • Rose

    My (married) parents have always used ‘partner’ as they preferred it to the more connotative husband/wife. I’m inclined to agree with them.

  • nyclouise

    I like “umbrella”. (See Glossophilia’s post on this subject from earlier this year: http://www.glossophilia.org/?p=6094)