Photo by Alberto Pizzoli
Artillery Row

Howdy, partner

On the least erotic noun in the English language

Hi, I’m Paul and this is my partner Samantha” — dread words. Have Samantha and Paul been enjoying years of exchanging spreadsheets, or years of exchanging passive aggressive glances across the kitchen table? But then again, perhaps it makes no difference. When halfway through the journey of your life you find yourself calling someone your “partner”, it hardly matters if you still indulge in a bit of desultory fornication — the world has already defeated you.

Older couples who’ve yet to tie the knot feel bereft of language

Partner is of course an ideal word for our sexless, genderless, shapeless, egalitarian world, and probably ought to come with matching grey jumpsuits. But, you complain, what do I call the guy I’m living with anyway? We’re in our late 30s and it feels rather silly to still have a boyfriend. Somewhere between the youthful cheerfulness of having a girlfriend, the sophisticated thrill of engaging a fiancée and the solemn wonder of marriage, perhaps older or more established couples who’ve yet to tie the knot feel a bit bereft of language.

But never fear. Pre-modernity has furnished us with an almost limitless treasury of terminology upon which to draw. Maybe you have a special lady in your life, but aren’t quite ready to commit to marriage. Have you considered getting on one knee and asking her to become your concubine? If she responds by flinging objects at you, hasten to reassure her. Concubinage is actually the peak of European sophistication. Once you’ve explained that you can live in the south of France and apply for a certificat de concubinage, a delightfully modern arrangement that entails no binding obligations, she’ll soon see sense.

Mistress is a term of more reliably English vintage, for those suspicious of continental arrangements, with all the cheery implications of a plump lady of the house ever ready with a hot meal and a warm bed.  If this all seems a bit sexist, consider that mistresses, as revisionist feminist history teaches us, were in fact sponsors of the arts, wily political operators and quite honestly the girl bosses of their age. Why should today’s professional woman embrace the Victorian domesticity of marriage when she can with a single word summon all the baroque glamour and baudy charm of Restoration England?

Do we not live in a sex positive age?

For men feeling left out of the romantic equation, there are options aplenty. For the Morris dancing crowd, why not have your significant other introduce you as her swain? You can’t deny the pastoral appeal, and for the Hampstead set it has something of the bohemian medievalism of the pre-Raphaelites. Truly the swain is the ideal modern life partner. Your boyfriend is angry that you drunkenly sent a nude to your ex, but your swain cheerfully fetches you a herbal tea as you pose nude for your many artistically inclined friends.

As inviting as all these options are, to really find a good alternative to “partner”, we need a suitably gender-neutral label. I propose that unwed couples who are looking to tell the world they’re serious grown-ups start introducing themselves as lovers. I can just see the furious blushes intruding onto otherwise placid middle-aged faces and awkward Anglo stammers echoing across the dinner tables of England. But hear me out. “Lovers” is the stuff of Shakespeare: “the sight of lovers feedeth those in love” — it’s as English as Yorkshire pudding. Why, in the West Country you may even be greeted with a pleasant cry of “alright, my lover”, indicating nothing but sincere affection for one’s fellow man. It’s a universalist, humanistic sentiment that should trip easily off the lips of today’s cosmopolitan (but trendily English) couples.

Of course, rather embarrassingly it would seem to imply the act as well as the sentiment of love. But do we not live in a sex positive age? If you’re happy to call for (and participate) in a “kink-inclusive pride march” you should be overjoyed to gently allude to the fact that you and your significant other shag on a regular basis.

No, the time has definitely come to dispose of the dull label “partner” and insist that every dignified cohabiting couple in Britain start breathlessly declaring that they’ve been living with their lover for the past four years. And if marriage rates start mysteriously soaring upwards? So be it.

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