The Future of the Word “Partner”

With the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage, what happens to the word partner?

“Let me check with my partner.”

“Have you met his partner yet?”

“She lives with her partner and their two dogs.”

For the past few decades, we’ve had two related but distinct romantic meanings for partner. Some couples, regardless of sexual orientation, prefer to define themselves as partners, whether they see it as a mature, more committed alternative to boyfriend or girlfriend, as a gender-neutral, progressive alternative to husband or wife, or they just aren’t fond of marriage as an institution.

But in other cases, partner has been used as the same-sex equivalent of husband or wife: these partners might wish they were married, but they haven’t actually been allowed. With the Supreme Court’s decision, same-sex couples in all 50 states can now become actual husbands and wives—so where does this leave the word partner?

One thing is clear: partner is no longer the highest floor where same-sex relationship elevator stops. Some couples are clearly looking forward to the change. Nathan L., a JetBlue employee, tweeted, “After 10 years of calling him my partner, it’s amazing to finally be able to call him my husband.” And even those who aren’t particularly interested in making it official have certainly noticed that introducing someone as your partner now invites questions about whether you’re going to take advantage of your new rights.

While June’s decision was definitely a significant change for gay and lesbian couples living in states where they weren’t previously allowed to get married, those in Canada or Massachusetts have been able to get hitched for about a decade. So if partner is on the way out, we might expect that Canadians would already have stopped using it. To find out, I conducted a highly informal survey among a dozen fellow Canadian linguists of my acquaintance with various sexual orientations.

The results? Canadians generally still associate partner with same-sex couples, with quite a strong association for people under age 30 or so, and a weaker, sometimes even orientation-neutral association as respondents got older. When I asked whether they’d use or expect to use partner themselves, however, the results varied not by orientation but by type of commitment: partners indicates a relationship that’s long-term, stable, too old for girlfriend or boyfriend, probably living together, maybe a common-law or domestic partnership. And marriage, husband, wife meant, well, you know, that thing with the rings and the vows.

But the interesting thing is that I also asked a few Americans, even from states where same-sex marriage only became legal a few days ago, and their responses weren’t noticeably different from the Canadians. It seems that the important thing, linguistically, is less whether gay marriage is legal in a particular jurisdiction and more whether it’s perceived as a viable option. Which makes sense, when you think about it. I mean, you’d have to be pretty intolerant to tell someone who went out of state to get married, “Nope, I’m still calling you partners until it’s legal here.”

So there’s nothing inherently gay about partner—it’s very much a function of circumstances where same-sex couples have been disproportionately likely to end up in a long-term committed relationship that wasn’t legally marriage. And this means that “He lives with his partner, if you know what I mean” may be about to join “he’s a confirmed bachelor” as an outdated marker of sexual orientation.

In fact, it looks like we’re all beginning to get less excited about partner. After a steady rise in the 1980s and 1990s, his/her partner has been flattening out in Google Ngrams in recent years.

google ngram, his partner, her partner

We can’t tell what gender combinations the partners refer to, of course, and Google Ngrams doesn’t have data after 2008, but it’s certainly suggestive, especially since it’s around the same time that we see a rise in his husband and her wife.

google ngram, his husband, her wife

In the long term, queer partner probably won’t vanish entirely: with the same range of relationship options available to gay and lesbian couples as to straight ones, anyone can use partner to invoke that middle ground. Partner is useful — it’s flexible, it’s neutral, it acknowledges that not all relationships fit into the same mold. But crucially, it’s no longer a word that LGB Americans have to use when they’d rather be using husband or wife.

In fact, the shift in partner mirrors a centuries-long shift in husband and wife, from meaning breadwinner and homemaker, Ward and June Cleaver, full citizen and legal chattel, to simply married man and married woman. When we stop looking at marriage as necessarily involving rigid, gender-based social roles, and instead see it as the union of two adults who can divide up their contributions however they like, it becomes something that queer people might actually want to do. Marriage equality only makes sense in a world where marriage involves equal partners in the first place.

Partner is dead. Long live partner.

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist who writes popular linguistics, especially about internet language, for publications including The Toast and Mental Floss. She blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.