There’s a particular grievance that’s been building in the back of my mind for the past few years. It’s one of those things—and maybe you know what I’m talking about—which make me stand up, look around the room, and think, in my screamiest inside voice, “Is this really not bothering anybody else?!”
People…lots of people…seem to have become unhealthily enamored with the word “partner” lately. They use it when describing all manner of relationships, whether referring to a person they’re married to, someone they’re dating, someone they’re engaged to, or even just someone they do business with, man or woman.
“My partner wanted me to ask you a question.”
“Her partner is actually the president of the company.”
‘I’ll talk to my partner about it and let you know tomorrow if we decided to sign the documents.”
It’s maddening. Those who have adopted this new way of talking about the people who are significant to them don’t seem to understand how inconsiderate they’re being, how useless their utterances are to those who hear them. The English language has spent hundreds of years—thousands, if you count all the time it spent as other languages—evolving to the point that we had words to describe the very specific relationships we form with people: boyfriend, wife, business partner, fiancee, spouse, husband, girlfriend are all excellent words (okay, “business partner” is more of a term) that give the speaker the power to tell the listener precisely who this person is and why he or she is being talked about in the first place. Why be so utterly, and intentionally, vague?
This very morning, I was watching a BBC news item about a woman who had, along with her infant child, been murdered by her “ex-partner”. Her “new partner” was being interviewed about how he felt about the investigation into whether this utter tragedy could have been prevented. There was that word again. This partner, that partner…who was who in this mess? Had these men been married to this woman? The ex-partner had apparently just been released from prison, so were they still married or had they been divorced when he went inside? Was this a jealous ex-husband out for vengeance or was he simply insane? Did the new partner have a legal claim to be inserting himself into the investigation? I’m not saying it matters to the point that the story doesn’t make any sense any more, but it does matter. You’re either telling the story, or you’re not. And if you choose to tell the story, then do it properly!
That argument, the “does it really matter?” argument, is the strongest I’ve been able to imagine for adopting this manner of communicating. “Yes, this person is a big part of my life. He/She is my partner. Does it matter what kind of partner?” I heard a contestant on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” program, about a year ago, talk about how she used the term “partner” when talking about her husband, for exactly this reason.
Now, despite my best efforts, I have a fair part of my life residing, generally, under the umbrella of liberalness. I can understand this argument. Equality in all things. I get it. I still, however, completely and utterly disagree with it.
My argument is the following: “I finally took my partner to meet my partner yesterday. He’d been really nervous about meeting her, but they got along really well in the end.” It’s an awful, tragic pair of sentences, a “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” sort of concept. It sounds like one parter is a spouse and the other a business partner, but which is which? Is this a person I work with being nervous about meeting my spouse or is my spouse intimidated by my business partner? Maybe I have a wife who knows I’ve been working with this other woman for years and years and doesn’t quite understand the relationship? Maybe my male business partner is nervous about meeting people in general, so is terrified at the prospect of encountering my husband? Possibly, neither of these is the case. This could easily be two business partners meeting. In some parts of the world, it could be the new wife meeting the older, more established wife. In short, it gives a cursory glance at the information, but it doesn’t tell the story.
“I finally took my business partner to meet my wife yesterday…” That’s all I needed. Suddenly, the context is so much clearer, and everybody knows what I mean. Everyone can relate. I’m telling the story.
I forget where I first came across the idea that all language is, in essence, a form of telepathy. Whether by spoken or written word, but point of language is for one human being to take the thoughts he or she is having and place them in the mind of another human being. It’s a brilliant idea, one which imparts a sense of wonder, of magic, even, to the words we use every day. This over-use of the term “partner”? It breaks the connection, spoils the magic. This is one person having one thought and using language to plant a completely different thought in someone else’s mind. It’s a tragic shame, and it needs to stop.
My partner agrees with me.
“Sect of the Rounded Stone” took a bit of a backseat this month, I’m afraid, due to a rather stressful holiday period, plus the picking up of a couple of other projects I couldn’t help getting stuck to. I found myself unable to stop myself from writing a handful of paragraphs this week, though, so it looks like the momentum’s coming back.