A Lexical Beef: ‘Boyfriend’ and ‘Girlfriend’

SweetheartsI have been away from this blog for several days, due to a single reason (no pun intended): I got married yesterday. Since my single life has come to an end, I’d like to take a brief pause from discussing dialects to air a lexical complaint related to singlehood: I really dislike the terms boyfriend and girlfriend.

Don’t get me wrong.  If 14-year-old sweethearts refer to each other in this manner, it doesn’t bother me. But I’m an adult, and there’s something juvenile about referring to a significant other as a ‘girl’ or ‘boy.’  And yet these appellations have had seen very little competition, at least in American English.

Not that there aren’t some limitations in the alternatives. I certainly wouldn’t prefer lover, for example, which has adopted an overtly sexual connotation.  Nor am I fond of the hopelessly vague partner.  Nor still the sappy sweethearts.  Still, I wish there were some way to refer one’s fully grown better half without misclassifying him/her as a ‘girl’ or ‘boy.’

Etymology Online dates the term “boyfriend,” meaning “woman’s paramour,” to 1909. However, the term has an earlier platonic sense.  The first use I managed to find in Google Books, from an obscure 1850 publication titled Friends’ review: a religious, literary and miscellaneous journal, describes the friend of a young man, not the lover of a young woman:

Though daily occupied with his drudgery as a farm servant, he began to instruct himself in Latin and Greek. A boy friend lent him several books necessary in these studies…

Girlfriend seems to have had a similar trajectory, beginning as a term for a young female friend, only taking on romantic connotations after the conversion of boyfriend.  Intriguingly, the original sense of girlfriend is still alive and kicking, as one can hear in phrases like, “I’m going to spend some time with my girlfriends this weekend.”  I can’t say for sure why the platonic meaning of boyfriend didn’t also survive.  Perhaps some consider it un-masculine to refer to your drinking buddies the same way their girlfriends do?

The construction ‘my + [man/woman synonym]’ to label one’s better half has had various incarnations over the years.  Such examples include my guy, my fella, my man, my woman, or my lady.  However, these terms have never moved past the stage of informality: when introducing your boyfriend at a work function, would you say, “This is my man, Dave?”  Probably not.

Then there’s the semi-ironic lady friend.  I’ve heard people my age use this phrase, entirely in jest.  One might object to the use of ‘lady,’ a word greatly devalued in a post-aristocratic society.  But I really don’t see how calling a 40-year-old woman a ‘lady’ is any sillier than calling her a ‘girl.’  Unfortunately, lady friend also lacks a suitable male equivalent, since gentleman friend is quite unwieldy.

Why, then, in most mainstream dialects of English, are boyfriend and girlfriend the best terms we can manage? Aren’t there any more mature options?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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29 Responses to A Lexical Beef: ‘Boyfriend’ and ‘Girlfriend’

  1. Tanya Coyle says:

    I agree with this. I would also posit that we need to reclaim the gender neutral pronoun (beyond ‘it’ which now means things/pets). Too often people have to use a plural pronoun in place of a singular one in order to get around the s/he issue. It’s annoying. But using “one” (One wouldn’t want to use ‘one’ too often for fear one would be considered overly formal or uppity) is not a good option either. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to go back to the old English neutral gender if it means we need to assign gender to all nouns!

    Tanya

    • Ellen K. says:

      “They” isn’t just a plural pronoun. It’s also an indefinite singular pronoun. Has been for centuries. (Ex.”If someone… then they…”). What’s new is using “they” for a specific person, specifically referenced. Seems to me this newer singular usage is not using a plural pronoun as singular, but rather, an extension of an already singular pronoun from indefinite usage to referencing specific people. And the reason for that is before the internet, it was rare to talk about someone specific without knowing their gender. So “they” as a singular pronoun” was always generic. Now that, thanks to the internet, we find ourselves sometimes talking about people of unknown gender, it makes sense to extend the singular version of they to this usage.

  2. Jan Freeman says:

    Congratulations!

    As an American of a certain age, I’ve been pondering this for decades, and I wrote about it in a column here. Two of my favorite bits from that research:

    The Oxford English dictionary dates the romantic girlfriendto 1892, quoting a sorrowful book dedication by its own F.J. Furnivall, a philologist and the second editor of the OED: “To the memory of Teena Rochfort Smith my much-respected and deeply-regretted girl-friend.” At 58, Furnivall had left his wife for Smith, a young Shakespeare scholar, who died soon after when she accidentally set her petticoats on fire.

    And this:

    A 1937 [New York] Times feature on Albania’s King Zog, 41 years old and in need of a wife, reported that “for years he had a girl friend, an Austrian baronin, who lived with her sister in Tirana.”

    We can all keep looking for alternatives, but I think we may be living with “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” for some time yet.

  3. Nick says:

    You’re too quick to dismiss “partner”. It’s only hopelessly vague if there’s not enough social expectation that it mean romantic partner. Well, in many Commonwealth dialects this has become almost the standard expression, so it works fine there. (Is this because the rate of unmarried cohabitation is higher or because there’s less stigma attached to it in these countries? Probably.)

    Anyway, Lynneguist has already done it:
    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2008/09/partner.html

  4. lynneguist says:

    Someone else beat me to it! Adults don’t say ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’ in England. At least not in any of the circles I’ve travel(l)ed in. They say ‘partner’–and it’s got(ten) to the point where it can be used very early in the relationship.

    • PJ says:

      I have to say that this is completely inaccurate. I have never heard a working class person in England person use the term “partner”, which seems like a pretentious and vague term. Most adults *do* use “boyfriend / girlfriend”, and if they’ve been together a long time, it generally becomes “fella”, bloke” / “missus” etc. I’ve always used “girlfriend” or “missus” (and I’m in my thirties now).

      My family (lower middle class, with working class family roots) refer to my sister’s bloke, with whom she has two children, as her “boyfriend”, and they have lived together for 10 years.

      Also, I suppose because British society is less homophobic than American society in general, we’ve never really had to use “partner” in a homosexual context, we’ve just used “boyfriend”. Gay men will generally just refer to their “boyfriend”.

      I’ve always found the terms “other half”/ “better half” to be absurdly pretentious, they are almost like nails-down-a-blackboard / wince-inducing to my ears.

      I really think there’s nothing wrong with “boyfriend” / “girlfriend”, especially as “girl” and “boy” often get used interchangeably with “women” and “men” (e.g. “…the girls from the office…”, “…going drinking with the boys…” etc.)

  5. ds says:

    I”d guess it’s because in the past people who got together simply married straight away- there was no ‘cohabitation’ stage, so there was no need for terms such as girl/boy friend to develop. Those two terms have been cobbled together in the last 50 years or so as a makeshift solution.

    I do agree it’s weird to hear grown adults using it! My parents are both well into their 50s but have never married, so it’s strange to hear them introducing one another as ‘my girlfriend’ or ‘my boyfriend’ at parties and events.

    Still infinitely preferable though to the vague ‘partner’ or even worse ‘cohabitee’. Yuck

    Dylan, Manchester

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Companion might be a nice option. I guess etymologically it means someone with whom you share bread.

  7. Liz says:

    Companion rather makes me think of “Doctor Who” – which probably explains why I think of it as being a non-equal relationship. The person who is the companion is less-important, somehow.

    You’ve left off “significant other,” which certainly has its faults (length, for one), but is gender neutral/

  8. IVV says:

    You also mention “paramour” above. I’d say that it’s extreme on the romance scale, but not as bland as “partner,” nor as sexual as “lover.” I think there should be plenty of words for someone you’re involved with, but not cohabiting with.

    For me, “partner” signifies either a business relationship, or a cohabitation that is more involved than a boy/girlfriend cohabitation. You break up with a boy/girlfriend, but with a partner, it’s more like a messy divorce without the convenience of court proceedings.

    Wow, I actually used the phrase, “convenience of court proceedings.”

  9. Dw says:

    Indian English has “life partner”, which I have always found charming.

    Congratulations, by the way! Take a few days off for your honeymoon!

  10. D S Onosson says:

    Diminutive terms are used in many languages as a sign of affection, and I would suggest that English is no different in this respect.

    Unless people don’t want to express affection publicly – maybe that’s the problem here?

  11. Marc Leavitt says:

    Coingratulations! Now that you’re married, you don’t have to worrry. You can call her your wife, and she can call you her husband. But seriously, at least in AmE, boyfriend and girlfriend, whether we like it or not, have become the accepted designations, and non-age specific. Many older people, even in their eighties, refer to their significant others this way. I understand the cringe factor in referring to a middle-aged person as “boy,” or “girl,” but I think it’s here to stay; although before we were married, my second wife used to introduce me to people as her “friend.”

  12. Simon says:

    Another thing no one mentioned is that the term “partner” is not only vague, but it also seems to have been taken over by homosexuals so it feels a little funny using it as a heterosexual person.

    • Angus-Michel says:

      Well, speaking as someone who, though neither homosexual nor strictly heterosexual in inclinations, primarily carries on emotionally intimate relationships with people of the opposite sex, I have to say the fact that someone doesn’t know from context whether my referenced ‘partner’ is a woman or *gasp* I’m one of those homosexuals isn’t really that much of a concern, and I don’t think that it should be to any reasonable person who isn’t deeply closeted. I generally reference my partner (danged ambiguous word) along with said partner’s name, which is not even remotely ambiguous, gender-wise, and anyway, pronouns would take care of the ambiguity if there were any. Refrain from using ‘partner’ if it bothers you, but don’t do so because you’re afraid of being thought homosexual. That’s just silly.

      • Ellen K. says:

        It’s not (necessarily) about any negativity towards homosexuality. It’s about accuracy. To use a word that implies someone is female when the person is male, or vice versa, is inaccurate. And just because the speaker doesn’t intend that implication, doesn’t mean the reader won’t read it.

        Of course, this varies from place to place. Simon is presumably from the U.S. And, evenmoreso, presumably not from the U.K.

        • Ellen K. says:

          That is… the author/speaker may not intend a certain implication, but may be aware that the reader/listener will make it, and thus choose a different word.

  13. AL says:

    Congratulations, trawicks!

    My boyfriend’s (divorced) mother has struggled with this too; she feels strange calling her significant other “boyfriend” due to their ages.

    I’m 29 and I use boyfriend or partner for my significant other. Partner is the safe/polite option I think, although as a gay person even I feel it can be a bit cold.

    (jokingly) How about “consort”? ^_^

  14. Jim Johnson says:

    Congratulations on marrying your chick! er, dame. At least I didn’t say “broad.” oops.

    I’ve also wished for a decent inclusive term for “partner” that works for both same- and opposite-sex couples… We’ve moved into long-term non-married relationships being more common, but the words escape us.

    And please congratulate your wife on marrying her bo.

  15. Amy Stoller says:

    Congratulations!

    Perhaps we should revive beau for a gentleman friend. Not sure what we can use for a lady friend: chere amie? Or perhaps the Scots jo (sweetheart) for both sexes? Actually, I rather like sweetheart. But I’m not terribly bothered by the terms that bother you. They have a long enough history, and a clear enough meaning, although it’s true that the double meaning of girlfriend can give rise to misunderstandings.

    I don’t care for partner without qualification. People have business partners, and they have life partners. That clears things up.

    • Laura says:

      Being in our 50s, I tend to use the term “beau” for my paramour. Sometimes I use “boyfriend”, but it does sound odd considering our ages. He simply introduces me as his friend. I’m not sure what we’ll use when/if we begin to cohabitate, but I rather like “consort”.

      Back in the late 70s, when cohabitation became more mainstream, I recall reading an article about this subject. One proposed tongue-in-cheek term was “spose”, as in “when do you s’pose they’ll get married?”.

  16. zpc says:

    One suspects the ‘why’ is down to a history of expectation of marriage; until relatively recently, there probably didn’t need to be common-parlance terms for a romantic relationship between two adults who were not either married or engaged to become so, because the relationship itself would have been unusual.

    (In the bit of England where I am, we usually just use ‘partner’ or ‘other ‘alf’ – has the advantage that – if you don’t know the person in question – you aren’t assuming anything about gender, at least not aloud…)

  17. Petex says:

    For a gender-neutral term, I like paramour.

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  19. I’ve been using the term “ladyfriend” pretty consistently for about five years now; I picked it up from my friends from Tacoma, who have heard say it independently of each other (they weren’t friends). I find it sounds classy in respectable situations, but I can make “ladyfriend” sound a little scandalous when I need to. I don’t really have a corresponding masculine term…. I don’t use the term “gentleman caller” but it’s cracking me up at the moment, so I might have to start.

  20. SteveY says:

    For a while I referred to my other half as the co-owner of my dog !

  21. Hershele Ostropoler says:

    “Lady/gentleman friend” suggest to me two nearly diametrically opposed meanings: particularly if X and X’s lady/gentleman friend are different genders, or if X were the one using the term, I would understand it to mean the relationship is strictly sexual. If a third party referred to “Alice’s lady friend” or “Bob’s gentleman friend” it might mean a strictly sexual relationship, or it might mean what is almost certainly a capital-R Relationship but Alice or Bob is not “officially” out as gay.

    “Partner” is bland, but I’d rather too bland than too … shmoopie-poopsie-ish, I guess. If you sit stiffly next to your partner on the train, facing straight ahead in mutual silence, then you and your paramour hover between making out and foreplay, right in the middle of rush hour.

    Mazel tov

  22. jpo says:

    My dad has been trying to pass off “womanfriend” for a few years now as acceptable terminology for discussing relationships between mature adults, though it’s never sounded quite right to me. I assume the equivalence would be “manfriend” though that sounds even worse.