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U.S. adults have “boyfriends” and “girlfriends”–Do other cultures also infantilize the unmarried? November 28, 2012

Posted by Onely in Dating, Food for Thought, single and happy, Your Responses Requested!.
Tags: , , , , ,

The U.S.’ widespread use of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” is a decades-old cultural relic, from a time when we married barely out of boyhood or girlhood. But now more and more adults are waiting until their late twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, or beyond to marry (if at all). So what does it say about our society that we call the people we’re dating “boyfriends” and “girlfriends”?

It SAYS that our society views unmarried people as younger/less evolved/more childish than married ones.

To be sure, our habit of using boyfriend/girlfriend in perpetuity did not arise from a concerted or conspiratorial cultural effort to infantilize unmarrieds. But the passive persistence of the terms does represent how singles are viewed. (For all that alliteration, you may thank this glass of wine.)

A thirty-eight-year-old hetero female has a boyfriend? Come on.

Progressive thinkers (usually as an extension of Queer rhetoric) have played with new terms: Significant Other; Partner; Life Partner. . .  These terms allow people of all ages to achieve the rare art of sounding both stodgy and mysterious at the same time.

Copious Readers, Onely requests your responses:

Let us know how other languages and cultures beyond U.S. English express the concept of boyfriend/girlfriend. In my understanding of Chinese, the terms might be interpreted as male friend/female friend. It seems to me German does a similar thing:  my male friend/female friend (whereas a platonic relationship might be a friend of mine).

We look forward to your input. And stay tuned for an upcoming post, in which we vote for the Best New Relationship Signifier of the 21st Century!


Photo credit: Enrique Romero


1. 10lan - November 28, 2012

Great question Christina – I always wonder what a 60 year old would call their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” ………. those terms don’t seem right.

But then I think of “partner” as defacto partner ….. not someone you don’t live with. And ‘significant other’ isn’t colluial enough.

Maybe the ‘oldies’ can have a bit of fun and call their friend their “toyboy” etc and wink in a cheeky funny way ……. ;-)

Onely - December 1, 2012

Right, it’s interesting how the whole rhetoric changes depending on whether or not you are living together, or whether you own a house together.

And yes, there is always the irony option! = )

2. Lola - November 28, 2012

Interesting you brought this up–I have long thought the same thing. I hate it when 40s, 50s, 60s–and beyond–use the term ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’. It seems that they are almost forced to demean themselves a bit because there just is no other word in English that they can use.
I don’t like ‘partner’ – it sounds to clinical, or like a 1970s feminist, and in general is just too ambiguous. ‘Lover’ – yuk. TMI.
Companion? It is a beautiful word actually.

Onely - December 1, 2012

Companion is pretty good actually. . .

3. tehomet - November 28, 2012

Here in Ireland, boyfriend or girlfriend is the standard expression. Progressive persons say ‘partner’ instead but that does usually mean someone you’re living with rather than just dating. *sigh* We need a new word.

Onely - December 1, 2012

Right, as what 10lan said. . . why does it depend on living arrangements? That is so wierd.

4. Terry t - November 28, 2012

When I returned to dating in my forties I referred to my dates as gentleman friends.

I find many of my now 60 year old friends refer to eachother as boyfriend/ girlfriend. I feel kinda sickened by the term.

Now I wonder, does referring to your companion as a child minimizes them?

Great thread Christina,

Terry t

Onely - December 1, 2012

Thanks Terry t. “I would like to introduce you to my childfriend, Robert. . .” = )

5. MT - November 29, 2012

This is something that my “partner” and I discuss a lot. I go back and forth between boyfriend and partner because I agree with the problems with boyfriend. Despite the fact that we’ve been together longer than many of our married friends, own a house together, etc, I feel like when I refer to him as my boyfriend, our relationship isn’t viewed seriously. On the other hand, I really hate the word partner for a romantic relationship. It just sounds so dry and unromantic. I keep saying we need another word. I’d prefer a word that can refer to someone of either gender whether or not your married.

Onely - December 1, 2012

Yes, definitely should be gender-neutral. Because what about when we get into transgender and all those gender-bending situations?

6. CassandraToday - November 29, 2012

German uses the same words as for “friend” (Freund for male, Freundin for female), relying on context to make it clear whether one is talking about “a” friend or “the” friend.

Onely - December 1, 2012

Ja. . . = )

7. Mary Anne Case - November 29, 2012

You’re way too limited in your question when you ask about terms for unmarried people’s partners, not the unmarried people themselves. Until the French officially banned the term this year, an unmarried woman of any age was called Mademoiselle (literally “little lady”). German, as Mark Twain famously pointed out, is a language in which turnips but not unmarried women are female. “Das Fraeulein” (literally “the little woman”) is neuter, and I know elderly German men who still refer to their unmarried colleagues with the neuter pronoun “it.”

Onely - December 1, 2012

Oo, we should do another post on that topic. Good idea.

Onely - December 1, 2012

“Es” in the workpace. . . Ugh, ugh, ugh

Onely - December 1, 2012

Or anywhere, really = )

8. Teri Hu - November 29, 2012

I’m all for co-opting the language of marriage to demystify it. There’s no magical alchemy in the words “I do” that transforms a boyfriend into a husband. If you’re committed for life, then you’re husband and wife, period (or whatever other combination you want to assume)…ceremonies and registries be damned.

We’re not married, but we call each other husband and wife, and have since we moved in together. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just felt TRUE. Since we’ve been together longer than most of the married people we know, no one questions our right to do this…at least not to our faces.

Onely - December 1, 2012

I love your system!

9. Alicia Betty - November 29, 2012

Fortunately, these days, it’s extremely rude to use the word “Fraulein” in Germany, it’s seen as demeaning (like when in English calling a grown woman “little lady” is really rude, as “lein” is a diminutive ending) and is being phased out of the vernacular. Yes, due to language quirks it’s neuter, but I wouldn’t take all German nouns’ pronouns very seriously…yes why would a turnip be female but a calculator be male, or a mouse be neuter? There is no rhyme or reason to the system, and you just have to memorize them all.

Onely - December 1, 2012

Haha yes how do the genders evolve? Fascinating. The random articles are terrible for learners of the language. . . many times I have been speaking with Germans and they’ve assumed (perhaps, on some occasions, a little drunkenly) that I was a native speaker. . . but only for the first few minutes, until we start drifting into topics where I don’t know the articles, and then they’re like, “Um, so where are you from?” = ) CC

10. Sydney - November 29, 2012

In French it is “mon/ma petit(e) ami(e).” Literally “little friend” for either gender. It’s interesting that French has that same sort of demeaning title that so many other languages do. I find saying “boyfriend” in English feels quite odd to call an adult. I will often use the terms partner or significant other even though in the U.S. most people assume that refers to a homosexual relationship (I am heterosexual). Those terms are just so much more mature and are not demeaning at all and make me feel like we are two consenting adults rather than children. Interesting topic!

Onely - December 1, 2012

Oooh that IS interesting! Gender-neutral infantilizing. Sigh.
= )

11. an information cluster (the round up) | diverge - December 2, 2012

[...] U.S. adults have “boyfriends” and “girlfriends”–Do other cultures also infantilize the unm… [...]

12. Genevieve - December 2, 2012

In NZ we call all people regardless of gender or marital status “partner”. There are still husband/wife situations, but most people still refer to their wife/husband as their partner. I really like it, it’s genderlessness and it being independent of marital status makes it a very adult and open-ended word to use. Partner simply means significant other, a business partner is a business partner.

Onely - December 2, 2012

Good for NZ = )

13. Jamin - December 2, 2012

How about ‘sweetie’? Yes, it might be a term of endearment, but it implies affection. I knew an older grey bearded gentleman that referred to his partner of many years as his sweetie (often not even referring to her by name. ‘Sweetie has gone out for milk and will be back in a moment’). I always thought it was very nice term taking away the coldness of ‘partner’ and the legal and property implications of ‘husband/wife’. ‘Sweetie’ (and other similar terms) just focuses on what it is, being committed to the one you love.

Onely - December 2, 2012

I like that. I think it would take some time to bring it into common colloquial discourse, but it could be done. CC

14. Beth ODonnell (@beth_odonnell) - December 4, 2012

I use “beau” and “paramour.” Keeps ‘em wondering.

15. Michael Wylie - January 20, 2013

Yea, I don’t like that terminology. I prefer lady friend.

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