If you are unmarried but otherwise taken, what do you call your significant other? If you are like me, you call your boyfriend your boyfriend, and if your life is like mine, this is silly because it’s been years (okay decades) since he could reasonably be labeled a boy and he is so much more than a mere friend.
Inaccurate as it is, “boyfriend” is fine. It is is unpretentious. It’s not trying to be modern or elusive. Using it sometimes makes me feel like Janet Jackson’s Diff’rent Strokes character Charlene, the girlfriend of Willis. It implies nascence and that things are still fun. It’s the least jarring of such labels from a connotative standpoint. “Partner” sounds way too clinical but also temporary, as though he and I just opened up a cheese shop on Bedford Ave., and once it inevitably closes in six months, we’ll lose touch. (While I know it’s popular to complain about straight people calling their, uh, partners “my partner,” I’m not so annoyed because I don’t really trust that anyone is truly straight and I don’t pretend to know what’s going on inside of anyone, which may necessitate some kind of gender-nonspecific label. So “partner” away, breeders—I’ll judge you not for posing but for being antiseptic.)
“Significant other” is a mouthful and also sort of vague—it sounds like a euphemism someone thought up to avoid signaling, “Yep, I’m a big, giant homo.”
“My man” is cute, but it’s also used to refer to total strangers. (I think that last person to refer to me as “my man” was handing out towels behind my gym’s front desk. Or maybe he was working at GNC. Or maybe he sold me some Nikes.) “My beau” is, like, something Blanche Devereux would say (I’ll be her one day, but I’m not there yet).
And then there is “lover,” a perfectly vivid label that no one uses anymore because...no one uses it anymore. “Lover” is the landline of terms of endearment—completely functional, virtually obsolete. It sounds quaint coming out of the mouths of characters in old movies like The Boys in the Band and Longtime Companion, when used to describe people in same-sex relationships. From what I can gather, and perhaps because people couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the idea that gay relationships are not 100 percent based in sex, it was also used by all sexualities to describe a repeated sex partner (they said “lover,” but meant “fucker”). What were the Spice Girls looking for collectively when they announced to the world, “If you wanna be my lover / Ya gotta get with my friends”? I’m not sure, and I don’t know that anyone else was either. Perhaps “lover” confused itself out of popular use.
Now when you hear “lover,” it usually has the name of a food preceding it to describe a pizza: “meat lover’s,” “veggie lover’s.” But what about the love lovers out there? Where’s our pizza?
Oh, how useful “lover” is. Lover. My lover. The one who loves me. In an ideal union, isn’t that what this person does above everything else? What does anything—your relationship, Janet Jackson’s early acting work, the doomed cheese shops we walk along—matter without love? If “lover” no longer applies to your relationship, it’s probably time to pack it in and consider other options. How fortunate to have such a label that works as a barometer for the baseline of a functioning relationship.
As much as I believe all this, I don’t use “lover” myself because I think it would be weird. But if some of us start using this archaic designation, then it wouldn’t be weird anymore. It would become normal to be specific, to love directly, without euphemism. And to kick things off, there’s no day like today.
(There is a 90 percent chance that I will not do this and will continue to call my boyfriend my boyfriend until I’m so old that I can’t make my mouth form actual words. But it’s nice to think about.)