Relationships that defy the dictionary's every word

June 25, 2000|By Susan Reimer

When I talk about Maria, I tell people that she is my goddaughter.

That's not technically correct.

Her sister Amanda, born just weeks before my son arrived, is my godchild.

That's why Joe and Amanda refer to each other as god-cousins. It is a useful term because it allows these two teen-agers to be close friends without any awkwardness.

But that doesn't explain my relationship to Maria, unless you want to call me her god-aunt, and it is important to me that people understand that she is more to me than the daughter of a friend, or a neighbor's child, or one of my children's friends.

She is the child of my husband's oldest and dearest friend, and I have known her since that night at dinner when she was a gleam in her parents' eyes.

When I say there are no words to describe my relationship with Maria, I mean there are no words.

The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and Webster's New World College Dictionary are expanding at the rate of more than 100 words a year. And the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have embarked on a $50 million, 20-year revision that will double the number of words in that venerated volume to more than 1.3 billion.

But most of the new words in the English language come from the world of technology and science, such as laptop, camcorder, O-ring, chemical dependency, El Nino and liposuction.

There isn't much beyond significant other to describe the only enduring thing in this world: the relationships between people. And significant other is as bland as paste on paper.

I often refer to Susan as my best friend, but that isn't fair to older friends who are far away and no longer part of my daily life.

And it isn't fair to my other friends, who would be hurt to think that one of them has been put above another when the truth is they are all best at something and that's why I want them around.

There are children in my life besides Maria and Amanda for whom I would cheerfully throw myself in front of a speeding car.

What word do I use to describe what they are to me? One of these children, Joanna, made me a Mother's Day card in which she apologized for not knowing how to describe me. "I know you are not my mother," she wrote. "But you are the next best thing."

There should be a word for what I mean to Joanna and one for what she means to me.

There are plenty of new relationship words and phrases: longtime companion, main squeeze, birthparent, surrogate, trophy wife, gal pal, lady friend, domestic partner, caregiver, family of origin, co-dependent, enabler, homeboy, soccer mom.

But none of these fits. These words are shorthand descriptions of relationships. They are evocative and frequently used, and that's why editors put them in dictionaries.

Why isn't anybody coining the words that will describe my relationships with other women, other children? And with other men?

My friend Joe and I are both married to spouses who travel for their work, and there have been many weekends when we have traded kids or redistributed kids and later combined kids to feed them.

We have drunk wine and had long talks while the spaghetti boiled or the hot dogs sizzled, and we have lightened our temporary loneliness.

But what do I call Joe? My other husband?

I think you can see why I need some new words.

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