The Goddess Speaks

Tuesday, January 12, 1999

Say it isn’t SO
(Significant Other)

By Sally Sorenson


"MY daughter moved in with her boyfriend," my friend lamented.

Emotional involvement hampers the gossip quotient. But emotions aside, exactly how do we talk about the unmarried couples of all ages who have set up housekeeping and share lives?

In another era, the combination would have been considered common-law marriage. In our era, that's a touchy subject. Too many marriages end in divorce, and a number of nonmarriages become palimony suits. We need a better title when husband, wife, or spouse, doesn't fit.

Webster's dictionary definition, unfortunately, lists the perfect word fifth, right behind the abbreviation for "obsolete." We had the proper title and let it die right along with "nigh," "skeedaddle" and "haberdasher." The word is "consort": two syllables, easy to spell and pronounce, short, sweet, descriptive.

While the word still applies to husband, wife, or royal spouse, such as the "prince consort," it has lost its appeal as a description of a companion or partner for commoners.

Perhaps it carries a ring of inequality. At the time of its Latin origins, life was simpler. Com or con: partner; sors or sort: lot, share. To share one's lot in life with a partner.

Middle French and English did just fine with it, except royalty, who were not keen on sharing. The prince or queen consort is spouse of a reigning monarch, but doesn't share or succeed to the throne. Hence, Philip, prince consort of Queen Elizabeth, will never be king of England. His son, Charles, is next in line.

"Consort" works just fine as an intransitive verb, so feel free to consort with colleagues or unsavory characters. Ships and musical instruments can claim consorts, but English-speaking people seldom do anymore.

WHAT a shame. That leaves us with "boyfriend" or "girlfriend," even though the consort in question may have left boyhood behind decades ago. When a grown man talks about his girlfriend, the first inkling is to cast him as a pedophile.

Many still talk of couples with a nod and a wink for lack of a proper word. "Well, they're y'know ..." Nod, wink, arch the eyebrows. Body language must fill the verbal void.

The most popular phrase these days seems to be "significant other," which is nearly as bad as body language. Does that imply the complement is an insignificant something or someone?

Other what?

"I'd like you to meet Dudley, my significant other," leaves more questions than it answers. Is Dudley a lover? Can I still leave messages on your recorder? Is he significant because he feeds the cat, or pays the mortgage? When, if ever, will Dudley become an insignificant spouse?

Should anyone care?

Whole languages have died. We buried "forsooth," and only crossword junkies cling to "anon." Many words, while not exactly deceased, have metamorphosed from their original meaning into something quite different. "Gay," for example, will probably never again be used to signify happy and lighthearted.

But can we resurrect perfectly good words when the need arises? This is not a moral issue, so we don't have to worry about getting it on any ballot. We need only use it, like slang, and hope it catches on as firmly as "downsize" and "synergy."

Start spreading the word.

Sally Sorenson is president of the Aloha Chapter of the Romance Writers of America and has a "Back Off I'm a Goddess" bumper sticker she picked up from the RWA national conference; her husband won't let her use the sticker on the family truck.

The Goddess Speaks runs every Tuesday
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