Should a 55-year-old be a 'girlfriend'?

November 18, 2009|By Paul Marx and Jeannette Marx

The big story in Baltimore lately has been about a situation between a former boyfriend and girlfriend. But the story's not about teenagers. The "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are in their 50s. She's the mayor; he's a big-time developer.

A few years ago, Baltimore had a police commissioner, Kevin P. Clark, who got into an argument with the woman he lived with. Their dispute made the news. She said she was Mr. Clark's wife. He said she was his fiancée, whom he has been dating for 14 years. The dating had produced a 4-year-old son.

At about the same time, Baltimore had a schools CEO, Carmen Russo, who often flew off on weekends to spend time with her boyfriend, who lived in Florida.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, an older, dignified man, has a girlfriend - an older, dignified woman, Diana Taylor, who is a member of the board of Citigroup and a former head of New York state's Banking Department. She is referred to by New York's Daily News as the mayor's "gal-pal." Even The Daily News thinks "girlfriend" is not quite right.

Language is sometimes slow to catch up with changes in culture. We refer to people in midlife as boyfriend or girlfriend. They say they're "dating," when we know they're not just going to the movies. She says she's his fiancée when she knows there's no wedding in the offing. Language lag can cause big problems. The old words say one thing when something quite different is the truth.

So what should Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon be called? What should developer Ronald Lipscomb be called? Once upon a time, they might have been called lovers. But most Americans are too shy to use that word. It implies that the relationship is illicit. It blares out the sexual side of the relationship. Even if everyone knows the lovers do, in fact, make love, the lovers don't want to be known by that word.

If such a relationship produces a child, surely "wife" and "husband" are not inappropriate. But that gives legal sanction to a relationship that doesn't have it.

Sometimes the word "companion" is used. But what lover would be happy being referred to as a companion? Companions may spend a lot of time in each other's company, but companionship doesn't exactly imply passion.

Gays and lesbians used to refer to their lovers as companions. Now the word "partner" is in vogue. That's a more accurate term than boyfriend or girlfriend. Still, it suggests a business relationship and, all in all, does not convey any more warmth than companion.

If a couple were to have problems and go for counseling, the professional they see might talk about each of them as a "significant other." But that six-syllable term is a real clunker. It's not the answer to the what-to-call-it problem. In its favor, though, it must be said that "significant other" is not age-related, nor is it in any way judgmental.

And it does point to a really viable solution. Suppose the starch and the harsh consonants were squeezed out of "significant other." We'd be left with "signo." Just two strong syllables! It's quick. It ends in a juicy vowel. It's suitable for all ages. It's got the excitement of signet and the weight of significant. Signo might be the right word.

Mayor Dixon could say her former signo took her on trips and showered her with tokens of affection. And no signo would have to refer to the mayor of Baltimore as a former girlfriend.

Paul Marx, the author of "Jim Rouse: Capitalist/Idealist," lives in Towson. His e-mail is pppmarx@comcast.net. Jeannette Marx is a psychiatric nurse.

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