Books and partners
I got Nick Hornby’s book The Polysyllabic Spree as a Valentine’s gift and it’s even more amusing that I thought it would be. You know you’re a real nerd when you read books about reading books, and I just upped the quotient by turning around and blogging about reading a book about reading books. Hornby meanders all over the place, musing about so many different subjects that it’s downright inspiring to us fellow meanderers.
Anyway, Hornby mentions his family quite a bit in this book, dropping in references mostly to his children but occasionally to his partner. And every time he says the word “partner”, it jars me, as I imagine it would most American readers. Most word choice differences between Americans and the English are inconsequential, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some significance to their willingness to use the word “partners” to describe an unmarried straight couple. In America, “partners” is sort of the consolation prize we’ve given to gay and lesbian couples who would be “spouses” in a more just society. But I don’t think that’s why straight unmarried couples necessarily avoid the word.
I for one gag on the word “partner” to describe my boyfriend. I pretty much only use it when filling out paperwork. It just seems so stuffy to me, even more tedious than the word “husband” would be. It seems kind of sexless. Lawyers have partners; I have a boyfriend. Makes me wonder if the Brits just don’t care to wear their sexual status on their sleeves. Or maybe it really is that Americans are pathetically youth-obsessed and the word “partner” just sounds too mature. I’m leaning towards the latter, especially seeing as how I have realized since cutting my hair short that I am beginning to go gray and it made me pout for a day or so. Which made me feel stupid—did I think it was never going to happen? Mortgage, gray hair, using the words “promotion” and “credit history” when talking to friends, and I balk at the word “partner”. Sad, really.
The irony of all this is that I have a sneaking suspicion that for Homophobic America, the word “partner” doesn’t sound stuffy and sexless at all, but instead invokes a delicious, sexy, forbidden world. Of course, unlike the oceanic gulf that changes the connotation of “partner” between America and England, people like me who think the word is stuffy are living and working next to people who flinch to hear it.
That thought does cause me to despair a little of people ever getting through to each other—when you can’t even use a word like “partner” without invoking wildly different reactions in people who all ostensibly speak the same language, how to speak in complete sentences and be understood? But hell, we have mountains of historical evidence that people do in fact manage to cross boundaries and change minds.