Finding a better word for “boyfriend”

During a conversation about an otherwise mundane subject, a 42-year old friend mentioned in passing the name of some guy, which eventually necessitated the admission she’d been seeing him. Not just looking at him, but going out with him.

“Oh,” my ears pricked up. “I didn’t know you had a new boyfriend.”

This caused my normally articulate friend to blush, then stammer, “I don’t know if I’d call him a BOYfriend,” adding the word “boyfriend” sounded pretty juvenile and from another era.

She was right. I instantly conjured an image of two 40-somethings sitting opposite in a booth at a diner, perhaps the retro-fitted Denny’s in Marshall, sharing one malted with two straws. Her graying hair pulled back into a ponytail, his receding hairline slicked back, her saddle shoes making accidental contact with his loafers while tapping to a jukebox tune.

“Then what would you call him?” I asked. She honestly didn’t know. I understood completely where she was coming from.

Back in 2006, my now-husband and I faced the same dilemma: What to call ourselves. We’d been married a combined 30 years and parented nine children between us. Divorced and back on the dating scene, the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” with the emphasis falling on the first syllable of the words, come across sickeningly sophomoric.

We joked about using the technically more adult terms “manfriend” and “womanfriend,” but concluded they sounded even goofier, like we were trying to prove something. Maybe Kerry used to be a woman, but had undergone a sex change and was emphasizing the fact. And “womanfriend” carries an anonymous, any-woman-will-do connotation.

I’ve heard an older man refer to the woman he was dating as his “ladylove,” but that opens another can of worms. The point is to avoid using the word “love” as long as possible, unless it truly applies, which it usually doesn’t before or IF a relationship gains traction. Plus, the male equivalent of that term is “gentlemanlove,” which, frankly, sounds stupid.

My friend and I looked at other words older couples could use to describe one another. We decided “companion” has seeing-eye dog undertones and “partner” has homosexual or contractual overtones, while “significant other” confers more importance than is realistically present in the early phase of a relationship. And “escort” implies a service is being performed for money, which isn’t always the case.

We vetoed all the reigning trashy terms, such as “main squeeze” and “FWBs” (“friends with benefits”), taking particular offense at self-fulfilling prophecy phrase, “my future ex-husband.”

Perhaps this is why so many people remarry so fast: It’s not rebound behavior so much as a need to sail quickly through the shoals of inexact labeling. It’s socially awkward.

An older, widowed female friend of mine referred to the men I dated post-divorce as my “suitors.” That made me uncomfortable because they weren’t looking for marriage any more than I was. When I objected, she switched to “swain,” which sounded too much like “swine,” which sometimes turned out to be the case.

But then I met Kerry. Well, re-met, in a dating context. I’d already known him for 14 years, 13 of them as someone else’s husband. The first year of dating was awkward. We knew early on we would end up solidly coupled, but didn’t know what to call ourselves.

I felt relieved a year later when Kerry proposed to me, thinking the forward movement might unmuddy the waters. Instead, it just provided us with another awkward label, “fiancé.” It sounded awfully French and sophisticated for a middle-aged couple in the Midwest. Kerry’s a burly Norwegian and I’m a tomboyish Irish gal, so we felt especially pretentious being hoity-toity “fiancés.”

A social worker friend said she was trained to use the phrase “paramour” in report writing to describe a cohabitating person. Kind of a classed-up version of FWB. In the spirit of diversity, I prefer the Italian term, “inamorata.” But people wouldn’t get it.

To avoid choking on the Victorian “my betrothed” during our engagement, I started calling Kerry “my special someone.” Thank goodness after two long years in verbal spin cycle, we officially graduated to the more practical term “spouse!” But he’s still my special someone.

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