Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: What do you call your significant other?

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Once upon a time if you referred to someone as your "partner" most people would have assumed you meant your business partner. But these days "partner" is widely used to refer to romantic partners or significant others.

I'd say this usage has been around for at least 20 years. In the lead-up to our wedding in 1993 I remember referring to Kevin as my "partner" since he'd been promoted from a mere "boyfriend" and I couldn't bring myself to utter the cloyingly prissy - yet strictly accurate - "fiancé".

I suspect we New Zealanders were ahead of the rest of the world in adopting "partner" in this fashion. A 2009 Columbia News Service story entitled Take my partner, please! Couples embrace new term for each other gave the impression this was a fairly recent phenomenon in the US. It explained that "[i]n an age of increasingly diverse and complicated relationships, couples are searching for the right term to call their one-and-only.

Many are turning to the term partner to describe everything from a wife to a casual boyfriend."

The appeal of "partner" lies in its gender neutrality as well as the fact that it is no nonsense and unsentimental - qualities that appeal to uncomplicated Kiwis. Yet some people lament the fact that the new meaning of this word has gained such widespread acceptance and wish there was an alternative word for referring to someone in a committed relationship that doesn't involve marriage.

But what other terms are suitable for this purpose? Let's take a look at some possibilities.

Beau: It's old-fashioned and acceptable only if you're elderly.

Better half: When this term is used by a man to describe his female partner it seems patronising. It just does.

Boyfriend: This is fine if you're under, say, 23 years of age and weirdly it becomes acceptable again if you're over about 60. I don't know why.

Current root: Yeah but nah. Only Cactus Kate could get away with being this crass.

Date: Sounds lightweight, temporary and a bit high school. Fine if you're still at high school.

De facto: This smacks of WINZ entitlements and is unlikely to have wide appeal.

Flame: Not right.

Girlfriend: See "Boyfriend".

(the) Handbrake: Humorous as long as it can be used to refer to people of both genders.

Her indoors: No. Unless you're Arthur Daley from the TV series Minder.

Live-in lover: This has a retro 70s vibe and should not be overlooked.

Mate: It's bad enough that this word has been borrowed from the animal kingdom; the fact that the Mad Butcher overuses it as a term of endearment makes it even less appealing.

(the) Missus: Not really liking this one - and the fact that "the Mister" hasn't really caught on pretty much counts it out.

Other half: It's casual, to the point and certainly less patronising than "Better half".

Significant other: A bit serious and slightly pompous but people of substance should be able to get away with this without being laughed at too much.

Soul-mate: I want this to be okay. I really do. But I think it's a tad soppy. Sorry.

Squeeze: Worse than "Flame".

Suitor: Has potential. But only if you're trapped in a Jane Austen novel.

Sweetheart: Might be okay if the two of you actually were childhood sweethearts. Otherwise it's kind of icky.

So after examining the options, I can kind of see why "partner" has gained such traction. It's the best of a bad bunch.

What's your opinion? What do you call your significant other? (And we don't mean Cupcake, Pumpkin or Snookums.) Is "partner" okay or do you wish the PC brigade would stop hijacking perfectly good words?

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