Girlfriend, partner, bae: what do you call the lady in your life?
Charlotte Richardson Andrews on the words we use for the ones we love.
What's in a name? A rose by any other, said the bard, would be just as sweet. That may be true enough, but another truth is that words have an indisputable power in this world.
Vagina, for example, is still considered wildly taboo by some - by the US Republican party, who demanded Democrat politician Lisa Brown's suspension when she dared to utter the word during a debate over abortion rights - a saga the media aptly titled #vaginagate; by Apple, who wouldn't let their customers engrave the word on their iPads but have zero issue with the word penis; and by the staff at a "cosy Hertfordshire coffee shop", who asked patron Radhika Sanghani to leave when she was overheard using the term during a harmless chat about periods, with a friend. But not - thankfully - by the English dictionary bods, who, in 2014, agreed to add the words cunted, cunting, cuntish and cunty to its august pages.
The English language comes to us loaded with context (and colonial history). Increasingly, its words are slippery, unfixed things - evolving, taking on new meanings in different contexts, shifting with the times to fall in and out of fashion; repurposed, shunned, reclaimed. In the playground, among bullies and foes, 'dyke' and 'fag' are weapons - words used to wound and taunt. Among DIVA-reading friends, dyke is more likely to be a term of affection and endearment - a friendly, or maybe joyous aggressive affirmation.
So, when it comes to naming our amours, the names we choose say A LOT - about us, our partners and the way we move through the world, hoping to be seen (or not seen) and understood. K.M Sims has meditated on this issue in a recent piece for AfterEllen, centring her piece on the now-ambiguous power of the word girlfriend while calling for a queer reclamation of the term.
"What is markedly aggravating, however, is whilst being in a committed and loving relationship with a woman (when I'm stoked to share that I am, indeed, "taken," "in love," or "wifed up,") my own use of the word "girlfriend" rarely translates my intended meaning and is repeatedly mistaken for antiquated straight girl lingo…. Girlfriend needs to be sexy again, needs to imply commitment when it's coming out of the homosexual female's mouth and needs not to be laughed off by straight men that readily use it to describe their own meaningful love relationships."
I can empathise: as a femme-presenting queer women who often passes (unintentionally) as straight when I'm out without my more boi-ish-presenting girlfriend (who, incidentally, prefers the term boi to butch - words, eh? They really do matter), I know what it means to bravely deploy the g-word in conversation - with everyone from utility companies to check-out clerks - and still be read (rendered invisible) as hetero.
To some, girlfriend has a distinctly adolescent quality that might not work for older queer women, and those in serious, long-term relationships where the romantic dynamic might feel more matrimonial and domestic than college crush. While partner feels grown-up and proper for some of us, others might dislike its gender-neutral power, preferring inherently female-centric labels such as wife, wifey or girlfriend.
Maybe you have original pet names for each other - the kind that don't get included in the multiple-choice options on government forms; maybe yr polyamorous, and have a creative cornucopia of terms to use for your multiple, extended family of partners.
Terms like 'primary' (in a primary/secondary relationship, the person or persons in the relationship with the highest degree of involvement or entanglement, or sometimes the person accorded the most importance); 'ambiguisweetie' (an ambiguous, undefined amour), 'metamour' (a partner of one's partner, with whom one does not share a direct sexual or loving relationship), 'paramour' (a married person's lover).
Maybe you call yr amour 'bae' (before anyone else) online, and something else IRL. Maybe you call her 'wifey', or 'boo'. If you're Dawn Denbo, she's "my lover, Cindy." Maybe it depends on who you're speaking to.
For a short while, back when Kristen Stewart was coming out the glass closet with then-squeeze Alicia Cargile, many of us took to calling ourselves gal pals in gleeful mocking reference to a mainstream media who were determined to report on the actress's love-life while doing their best to avoid incurring an expensive libel case. Proof again - not that we really needed it - that the words we use to describe each other have power.
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