Significant Other

This post is my first experiment at writing on words themselves. Since English isn’t my native language, I like to play with words, reflect on their use and see how they can or can’t jump from one culture to the next. Dear reader, may you be native English speaker or not, please be indulgent with my inadequacies and misunderstandings and don’t hesitate to add your 2 cents with other languages!

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The expression “Significant Other” always made me smile. It is so American in my mind, so untranslatable, so foreign to the French language. This way to successfully avoid describing the exact nature of the relationship between two people, I’m totally impressed… Oh wait, does it even have to be people? Can’t your significant other be a pet? I’m not sure, since as far as I know it’s mainly used in wedding invitations and in office parties with people you don’t know so much, so I always assumed that the other person invited together with the main addressee would be a human being. But perhaps I shouldn’t assume anything, and be ready for about anyone AND anything.

What this expression really does it to tiptoe around sexual taboos in order to preserve privacy and intimacy. “Other” doesn’t presume anything regarding the gender or the marital status, so it’s supposed to put everyone on an equal footing. Gays, lesbians, unmarried people and everyone else with a special situation or an uncertain status, won’t feel excluded by “Significant Other”, unlike the very pointed “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so”.

And yet, I’ve never heard anyone use this expression for oneself. It looks fine on a handwritten envelope and on an official form, but have you ever answered the question in person: “Do you have a S.O.?”, “Who is your S.O.?”… Of course no, because it would defeat the very intention to remain vague and not to hurt anyone’s feeling by forcing them to say out loud: “I’m seeing this girl, I’m madly in love with her but we haven’t made out yet, I’m not even sure she’s interested.” Or “I’m gay and btw, I work in this very bigoted office too and can’t stand your so-called jokes anymore”. Did anyone ever stepped forward and presented him/herself with: “Hi, I’m Angelina, I’m Brad’s Significant Other”. That would be weird!

I personally find “your significant other” a polite, yet aggressive way of formulating a relationship. Indeed, “partner” isn’t as vague as “S.O” because not everyone defines a relationship as a partnership and that “S.O.” can be used for informal, budding relationships (yet proper etiquette tells you that when the wedding invitation mention a significant other, you can’t bring someone on a first date, and not even second…) When you’re in love with someone, don’t you wish that this person isn’t an “other”, isn’t “foreign” to you anymore? To me, this word definitely puts a distance between the 2 persons in the relationship. And what about “significant”? I’m troubled by the link between “Significant” and “Signifying”. What is this person supposed to signify? “Important” probably hasn’t been selected because it underlines the “neediness” of one of the 2 persons here. “You’re important to me” doesn’t say that it’s reciprocated, and it even doesn’t say anything on the nature of the attraction. Is this person “significant” for you in an emotional way, in a sexual way, or even basically in a financial / material way?

Now, how other languages solve this dilemma? Is “Significant Other” used in other languages? I am very curious about it. French language sure doesn’t have the equivalent. Most times, wedding invitations give the names of both parties, even if it means that you have to call 12 people to ascertain if this friend is still seeing that girl and what was her name again? Office parties mostly mention “spouses”, because I guess people in the business environment aren’t so much aware (or willing to be) of gay and lesbian relationships. It doesn’t mean that same sex partners or unmarried partners aren’t invited, it just means that you’re not supposed to feel uncomfortable if you don’t belong to the mainstream (straight and married). When speaking among younger crowds, we liberally use the word “friend”, that is gender-blind and not clear on the depth of the relationship (friendship or more…). In horoscopes, the expression “loved one” is plainly used, which I find sweet, but it wouldn’t work when speaking because people are shy about their emotions.

Are you comfortable with “Significant Other”? If not, what is your solution?

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4 thoughts on “Significant Other

  1. Interesting post–I hear partner used a lot and sometimes significant other in sort of generic terms–I might use it when talking about someone I don’t know very well. But you’re right, I would never refer to my own husband as my significant other. I think of S.O. as more than a friend, but not a spouse–whatever the sexual orientation. I wonder how these terms came about and whether they are used in Britain as well. And it is interesting to see how other cultures define these relationships–if they are more traditional or have found new terms for different situations.

  2. I like the French solution – very personal (but perhaps a bit impractical). And I agree about S.O. being quite unsatisfactory. I also think partner would be better. (Although now I’m thinking Howdy Partner a la Peter Sellers.) And significant other is better than insignificant other! But an interesting link between significant and signify.

  3. I just had to translate into French a poem by the Irish poet Derry O’Sullivan, who speaks about “widows and widowers seeking significant others/Under stone angels at Père Lachaise cemetery”. I translated this way: “des veuves et des veufs à la recherche de leur douce moitié/Sous des anges de pierre du Père-Lachaise”. – “Douce moitié” is somehow old-fashioned, but I think it works OK here, since the original poem (to be published in “La Traductière Nr 27”, June 09) marks a distance through a hint of humour.

  4. Thanks for dropping by! Isn’t Douce moitié a French-Canadian expression? I think the English equivalent would be “my better half”, which I find sweet and old-fashioned. Significant other isn’t really as sweet as that, don’t you think? But you’re right, it works ok in this poem.

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