Dictionary.com

The Future of the Word “Partner”

wedding rings

With the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage, what happens to the word partner?

“Let me check with my partner.”

“Have you met his partner yet?”

“She lives with her partner and their two dogs.”

For the past few decades, we’ve had two related but distinct romantic meanings for partner. Some couples, regardless of sexual orientation, prefer to define themselves as partners, whether they see it as a mature, more committed alternative to boyfriend or girlfriend, as a gender-neutral, progressive alternative to husband or wife, or they just aren’t fond of marriage as an institution.

But in other cases, partner has been used as the same-sex equivalent of husband or wife: these partners might wish they were married, but they haven’t actually been allowed. With the Supreme Court’s decision, same-sex couples in all 50 states can now become actual husbands and wives—so where does this leave the word partner?

One thing is clear: partner is no longer the highest floor where same-sex relationship elevator stops. Some couples are clearly looking forward to the change. Nathan L., a JetBlue employee, tweeted, “After 10 years of calling him my partner, it’s amazing to finally be able to call him my husband.” And even those who aren’t particularly interested in making it official have certainly noticed that introducing someone as your partner now invites questions about whether you’re going to take advantage of your new rights.

While June’s decision was definitely a significant change for gay and lesbian couples living in states where they weren’t previously allowed to get married, those in Canada or Massachusetts have been able to get hitched for about a decade. So if partner is on the way out, we might expect that Canadians would already have stopped using it. To find out, I conducted a highly informal survey among a dozen fellow Canadian linguists of my acquaintance with various sexual orientations.

The results? Canadians generally still associate partner with same-sex couples, with quite a strong association for people under age 30 or so, and a weaker, sometimes even orientation-neutral association as respondents got older. When I asked whether they’d use or expect to use partner themselves, however, the results varied not by orientation but by type of commitment: partners indicates a relationship that’s long-term, stable, too old for girlfriend or boyfriend, probably living together, maybe a common-law or domestic partnership. And marriage, husband, wife meant, well, you know, that thing with the rings and the vows.

But the interesting thing is that I also asked a few Americans, even from states where same-sex marriage only became legal a few days ago, and their responses weren’t noticeably different from the Canadians. It seems that the important thing, linguistically, is less whether gay marriage is legal in a particular jurisdiction and more whether it’s perceived as a viable option. Which makes sense, when you think about it. I mean, you’d have to be pretty intolerant to tell someone who went out of state to get married, “Nope, I’m still calling you partners until it’s legal here.”

So there’s nothing inherently gay about partner—it’s very much a function of circumstances where same-sex couples have been disproportionately likely to end up in a long-term committed relationship that wasn’t legally marriage. And this means that “He lives with his partner, if you know what I mean” may be about to join “he’s a confirmed bachelor” as an outdated marker of sexual orientation.

In fact, it looks like we’re all beginning to get less excited about partner. After a steady rise in the 1980s and 1990s, his/her partner has been flattening out in Google Ngrams in recent years.

google ngram, his partner, her partner

We can’t tell what gender combinations the partners refer to, of course, and Google Ngrams doesn’t have data after 2008, but it’s certainly suggestive, especially since it’s around the same time that we see a rise in his husband and her wife.

google ngram, his husband, her wife

In the long term, queer partner probably won’t vanish entirely: with the same range of relationship options available to gay and lesbian couples as to straight ones, anyone can use partner to invoke that middle ground. Partner is useful — it’s flexible, it’s neutral, it acknowledges that not all relationships fit into the same mold. But crucially, it’s no longer a word that LGB Americans have to use when they’d rather be using husband or wife.

In fact, the shift in partner mirrors a centuries-long shift in husband and wife, from meaning breadwinner and homemaker, Ward and June Cleaver, full citizen and legal chattel, to simply married man and married woman. When we stop looking at marriage as necessarily involving rigid, gender-based social roles, and instead see it as the union of two adults who can divide up their contributions however they like, it becomes something that queer people might actually want to do. Marriage equality only makes sense in a world where marriage involves equal partners in the first place.

Partner is dead. Long live partner.

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist who writes popular linguistics, especially about internet language, for publications including The Toast and Mental Floss. She blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

17 Comments

  1. PAL -  October 15, 2015 - 8:12 am

    I call my friend my partner because he helps me make decisions about my video-game programming.
    Like a business partner.
    I’ve never understood why we change the meaning of words so that it’s impossible to use them without getting ridiculed by someone.
    Fabulous
    Awesome
    Awful
    Exhilarating
    Creative
    Inventive
    Experimental
    Etc.

    Reply
    • PAL -  October 15, 2015 - 8:14 am

      And of course the all important classic bunny-ears photo-bomb joke that has become over-sexualized by our modern society. “Meet me in the bed at 2-o-clock.”

      Reply
  2. Rance -  August 10, 2015 - 10:47 pm

    Howdy partner. I don’t care what people in the gay community call their mates. None of my business really. I call people “partner” all the time, of course that’s mostly here in Texas. But I did realize a few years ago that it’s probably less confusing if I introduce a close friend to someone as “my running buddy” rather than “my partner”. The word may very well become completely redefined as I have seen some of y’all write. If it does (like the word gay), well I guess I’ll just have to stop calling people “partner” and replace it with “sir”. I don’t call ladies “partner”, I call them ma’am.

    Reply
  3. Stevie Hair -  August 8, 2015 - 4:05 pm

    To me, partner is used when a couple aren’t married. I called my sister’s…well…partner a partner. They were a heterosexual couple who just weren’t married. It certainly wasn’t a “disposable relationship”. They were together twenty five years and had a daughter. They were in for the long haul. The only reason that I use past tense is because she (my sister) died of breast cancer a few years ago.

    I still refer to her partner as my brother-in-law even thought that doesn’t really sit well with the literal meaning. It’s not in law since they weren’t married. But then brother-out-law doesn’t work very well either does it now? :-)

    Reply
  4. Don -  August 7, 2015 - 6:31 am

    I remember when a partner was the co-owner of a business or joint participant in an enterprise of some other sort. Now you have to be careful about referring to “the guy who owns the other half of the firm” or people will assume you’re gay.

    Reply
  5. JohnGammon -  August 7, 2015 - 4:31 am

    There’s a good gag in the film American Beauty on this subject, where a gay couple try to introduce themselves to their new neighbour, a homophobe, who assumes that the word “partners” means they want to sell him something.

    Reply
  6. Dale -  August 3, 2015 - 6:10 am

    Agree with what ellipsis wrote on 7/10. Additionally, the word “partner,’ as the author indicated above, has in the past couple of decades or so become a euphemism for some sort of almost always temporary cohabitation. A couple of people – regardless of gender – playing house without commitment to any long-term future intentions. The people who use this word (or the equally euphemistic phrase “significant other”) to describe a relationship that they are in no doubt realize that it is usually just a disposable relationship born of convenience or inertia, while considering themselves too pretentious or post-modern to call a spade a spade, i.e. “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”

    Reply
    • Kris -  August 7, 2015 - 12:28 pm

      After the age of 50, it begins to feel silly to call your “significant other” your “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”. So, until you attend that age, don’t judge, please!

      Reply
      • Alexis -  August 10, 2015 - 11:17 am

        I disagree with Dale & Hibernia here. It doesn’t make sense to me that a partnership of any kind is “disposable” or “pretentious” or “post-modern”… it defies the root definition of the word, as well as my own.

        Reply
  7. hibernia -  July 30, 2015 - 3:48 pm

    I know you mentioned at the beginning that some people prefer ‘partner’ regardless of the relevant laws on marriage, but I just wanted to add that in my experience, 1. polyamorous people, 2. people in the asexual community, and of course 3. people in relationships with nonbinary people, all refer to their partners as ‘partners’ at a pretty high rate. When poly/ace/nb people take over the world, expect to see a lot more use of the term!

    Reply
  8. ellipsis... -  July 10, 2015 - 5:26 am

    Apart from the used-to-be-common reference to someone who works in an equal capacity in a business enterprise, I’ve always believed a “partner” is someone with whom a relationship is usually temporary, i.e. someone for the moment. Accordingly, this week’s partner could be replaced by another partner next week, yet still be a partner, i.e. someone who I just happen to be with now.

    Reply
  9. Gorge -  July 9, 2015 - 7:45 am

    Clearly, there is a group that is not being represented in this article. Non-binary people, who neither identify as male or female, cannot be described by the terms “husband” and “wife”. Possibly “spouse” is a better word, but as the LGBT acronym begins to expand into the more inclusive LGBTQIA+ and more people start to come out as genderfluid, transgender, agender, demigender, polygender, third gender, etc. I suspect that “partner” will indeed have a role in the coming years. And there’s still a big storm coming in terms of transgender rights. The fight isn’t over yet.

    Reply
    • Katherine -  July 9, 2015 - 11:41 am

      As a hospital employee I always found more couples preferring SO (significant other) to any other classification. Especially because it held true for all couples not just LBGT. Many couples stated that defining themselves as husband and wife were not fitting either since most people associated that solely with gender. So, I also agree with Gorge that ‘spouse’ could be another more acceptable title for a member of a married or unified couple. It suppose we need more feedback from the gay and/or gender changing community itself.

      Reply
      • Adam -  August 7, 2015 - 12:42 am

        I want to be a husband not just a partner. It would be a disaster for me personally to receive a wedding certificate that, instead of stating I was a husband who had a wife, recorded me as a partner who had a partner.

        Furthermore, if my wife and I are blessed with children I would like to be recorded on their birth certificates as their father and my wife as their mother — not “legal parent”, as is the case in Canada.

        Reply
  10. Lea -  July 7, 2015 - 2:36 pm

    I respect the LOVE two people have for eachother. In my opinion, if gay couples could set the standard for “straight” couples of what it means to be married and not ever divorce but stay in that marriage they fought so hard for, then they shud be allowed to wed just like any other couple! The reason for my opinion is because there are so many divorces (between straight couples) and it’s a shame that anyone who made that VOW to love forever through sickness and in health shud ever break it! The point of that sacred Union has become moot! So thus, why fight so hard for a vow only to have the option of undoing it?! If it’s just for the sake of all the legalities of marriage, then forming an LLC would be a better option. More STRAIGHT couples shud just consider a Limited Partnership before ever considering marriage.

    Reply
    • Anla -  July 10, 2015 - 8:12 pm

      Hi Lea! I completely agree about the loss of respect that people have for the seriousness of the sanctity of marriage- regardless of gender. The idea of marrying for romance is a relatively modern one, and not a universal one by any means. I think that this idea that marriage is all about love and assuming that two people will stay “in love” has contributed to the skyrocketing divorce rates. I’m interested about the Limited Partnership you wrote about. Is this a real alternative for people who are only marrying for legal reasons, such as shared health insurance? I had no idea there was anything other than wed or unwed (and common law marriage, which I don’t know much about). Thanks for bringing up another option that many people probably don’t know about.

      Reply
      • aesop -  August 8, 2015 - 2:03 pm

        I never knew “confirmed bachelor” was a euphemism for gay. A new one on me entirely. And I know MANY people who refer to their heterosexual spouse as partner. Granted, most are older, as am I. They also likely view marriage as a permanent union, unlike many younger folks. But I still accept partner as possibly meaning business partner, a partner in a hunting lease, in fact many other uses of the term. I guess all we old folks are going to have to die before the ‘new’ definition is fully accepted.

        Reply

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top