Language · Word of the week

Word of the week: partner

Partner: this word has changed meaning over the last 30 years, during the time that my brother has lived in Spain. He is married (his wife is Spanish) and he has a Business Partner (an English woman). Over the years, until around 2001, he would refer to the latter as his “partner”. He wasn’t living in England during the 1990s, when the word came to mean “significant other”, usually for people who weren’t married, and often for people in same-sex relationships. Most people who are married still use the word wife or husband to describe their partner. And these days, with the legalization of gay marriage people often use wife and husband to describe their partners in same-sex relationships: Stephen Fry refers to his husband, and Janis Ian’s excellent song “My Autobiography” includes the words “I’ve led a fascinating life / Had a husband and a wife’

Back in 2001 I explained to my brother how the word had changed meaning: there was often confusion in the eyes of people he spoke to when he was visiting London. He would be having a conversation, his wife would be next to him, and he’d talk about his partner, and her children, back in Spain. Just to clarify, I would say “Business Partner”. The confusion would disappear. Even now, 15 years later, he will emphasize the word “Business” and look at me at me pointedly, as if I had something to do with how the word “Partner” changed meaning.

During the 1990s many of my training clients were public sector employees, working for various parts of the civil service. One training day was spent 1:1 with a very high-up civil servant. I was going to write “senior civil servant”, but that might suggest that he was old; he wasn’t, but he was elevated enough to choose a day’s worth of 1:1 training rather than a public course. We chatted throughout the day, before the training began, during coffee breaks and so on, and repeatedly he referred to his “partner”. One of my colleagues, briefing me before the course began, mentioned that the client was in a gay relationship, with someone else in the same branch of the civil service. The client managed to go through the whole day using the phrase “my partner”, never a pronoun, not even the catch-all (and grammatically, technically incorrect) “they” or “them” instead of the more usual “he” or “him”. I was very impressed. He didn’t hesitate once.

Some people insist on using the word. At the same workplace one male employee made the mistake of asking a female colleague how her new relationship was going. “So, how’s your other half then?” he asked, innocently enough. “He’s not my Other Half. He’s my PARTNER”, she corrected him. It was the only word she used to describe him – she didn’t even allow him to be described as her boyfriend, even though they had only been going out for about a month.

Part of me still thinks of the word partner in the way that I first came across it – as the girl you were paired up with at primary school. If you had to leave the school premises – to walk down to the church for mass, for instance, or through the subway to Chiswick House Grounds for Sports Day – you had to walk in pairs, holding hands. My first partner was a girl called Charlotte, who left the school after Class 3. I wonder what happened to her. She was my partner.


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