Thoughts on the new meaning of the word ‘partner’

9 Mar

A somewhat silly movie once used the line “my name is Jay and this is my hetero life partner Silent Bob” as a punchline of sorts, but it went a long way to illustrating a point, the meaning of the word partner has changed. It wasn’t so long ago if you introduced someone as your partner that the almost guaranteed question of “What line of business are you two in?” would follow. Now and then some people would assume that perhaps you were referring to your tennis partner, or just using the word as it was in the old west to refer to a friend as some form of homey colloquialism. How times have changed.

Nowadays if you introduce someone as your partner it seems to draw a momentary blank stare as if they need a moment to process the information. You watch the persons eyes dart back and forth, up and own. look a way, and then settle on a point somewhere around your hairline before they smile and say “how wonderful.” Even in the cases that someone knows you are gay they often feel odd asking if the person you are with is your partner. They don’t want to use the word lover, and mate sounds a bit too Tarzan to work. Using spouse can be viewed by some as insensitive as most gay people still cannot get married, and rarely does anyone want to say wife or husband (depending on whether they are addressing a lesbian or gay couple) because they don’t know what is appropriate and would hate to offend anyone.Of course a final option is calling someone a significant other, but that seems to much like “important piece of trivia” and wholly impersonal.

As such the term partner is as safe a fall-back as can be arrived upon. Partner though sounds very clinical and cold, hardly what you would call the love of your life, and it just seems odd in that particular reference. It carries a connotation that seems to say “we’re better than friends, but we aren’t a real couple.” Given the choice it would seem a fairly safe bet that most gay couples don’t really introduce their beloved as partner unless of course they are with heterosexual company. While no statistics are kept on this, and would be a waste to bother trying to compile, personally speaking I never have introduced my wife as my partner just as I never introduced my daughter as being my “temporary womb occupant.” It sounds silly and completely depersonalizing.

Beyond that the use of the word partner being so commonly associated to gay couples has changed the way it used in daily life in regards to things completely unrelated to a gay partnership. In some cases teachers have made the conscious choice to start telling kids to “pair off” instead of “partner up.” You can notice some people may get an agitated look if you ask how their partner is doing instead of using the word friend because if a random passerby heard that they might assume they were gay. Who has partners other than gay people these days after all? If you listen closely, you’ll even hear people correct them self mid sentence when they use the word partner. A perfect example would be; “I told my partner, business partner, not the other kind, that I would look over those estimates later.” It is completely silly, but it’s a part of the linguistic landscape now.

As bad as the term partner may seem so far as conveying the depth of emotion shared between two people it isn’t really that bad. Any gay couple that has been around long enough has certainly been called worse for sure. Perhaps in the future when society in general is more comfortable with gay couples and gay marriage isn’t such a novel issue but rather the norm, partner may disappear from the equation and be a quaint afterthought. In the meantime, it’s fun to watch people that do not want to be mistaken as gay tiptoe around how to use the word partner.

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  1. Why Is The Toast Burnt? | Libdrone's Thoughts and Musings - March 10, 2012

    […] we choose to describe or explain make a difference.   My friend Mandy published a piece yesterday about the word ‘partner’.    There was a time when partner most often referred to a business or law partnership.   While […]

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