There’s a few words missing from our language.
In New Zealand, if you’re a waiter or a bartender at a middle-class establishment, ‘Sir’ is the only term you’ve got available to use to get the attention of the XY-chromosome-carrying member of the dining/drinking party so you can take their order when they’re busy talking i.e. “And what can I get for you, Sir?”
And then 85% of the time you get the smartass baby boomer who says, “No need to ‘Sir’ me, darling, I haven’t been knighted yet.” (These are the same men who say “I’ll have a wee dram” and mean they’d like a Drambuie, but if you ask for clarification, they’ll tell you you have to figure it out. Guys, you’re jerks. Cut it out).
‘Sir’ also works for everyday interactions, like “Excuse me, Sir, is this your wallet on the ground,” or “Sorry Sir, your mobility scooter is parked on my foot.”
“Ma’am” isn’t any better, unless you’re addressing royalty, in which case, booyah. (Entirely uninteresting fact: I once scrubbed down a BBQ grill so the Duke of Edinborough could cook on it during the 1990 royal tour of New Zealand.) Who the hell wants to be called Ma’am, but what’s the alternative?
We need a non-gender-specific term to mean Fellow Human Whom I Am Addressing. For years I’ve wanted to bring in ‘Comrade,’ but that went down worse than ‘Fetch.’
The other word that doesn’t work is ‘boyfriend.’ At least, it’s totally fine and dandy for sixteen-year-olds. And twenty-six-year-olds. Or maybe thirty-six-year-olds. But yesterday I met a woman who is 72 (she told me repeatedly she was 72) and who went to her “boyfriend’s” family for Christmas dinner, and cognitive dissonance set in. I’m not sure where the appropriateness cut off is for ‘boyfriend,’ but I feel it’s under 72 for heterosexual women. Curiously, I can see ‘boyfriend’ working if you’re a 72 year old guy. But I can’t think of anything better.
A quick poll at the dinner table suggests baby boomers dislike the term “partner.” A few said it suggested a power imbalance, or was impersonal. I found partner the most useful when LGBTQ humans couldn’t marry. It seemed elitist to use the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ when that was denied to a big chunk of the population. But now, I guess – in many countries, but not all, sadly – the need has gone.
Does partner work for a short-term or new relationship, though? It suggests something fairly solid and lasting, involving wills, although not necessarily joint mortgages. A partner is the person who takes you to chemo. A boyfriend is the guy you hooked up with last month and have been sexting with ever since, and more power to my new 72 year old friend if that’s the case.
‘Man friend’ doesn’t work for me. It makes my teeth clench. Perhaps it’s because it has an air of cruise ship dance host about it. ‘Girlfriend’ is confusing, when a woman can go out to the movies with ‘girlfriends’ and doesn’t mean she’s in a polyamorous lesbian relationship. ‘Woman friend’ is only marginally better than ‘lady friend,’ which makes me nauseated.
Most of all I really, really want something gender neutral, that means “Another human with whom I have formed a relationship involving emotional closeness.”
These are all keystone terms for any culture. We need better words. I’m open to suggestions.