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I have a good friend in his late 60s, and I've made an interesting observation that absolutely no one in our social circle will refer to the female he is (indisputably) dating with the term "girlfriend". A frequent comical substitution is "lady friend".

I wonder what it is about the word that makes people not want to use it in reference old people. I would think that term goes hand in hand with "dating" and would imply exclusivity, romantic interactions, possible courtship to marriage, and maybe sex. In the case of my older friend, no one appreciably doubts any of these points (oh dear have I said too much), so what causes people to not use it?

There has been a similar question What is a synonym for "girlfriend"?, which really just strengthens my case. The difference is that I'm asking why someone would want to avoid this, whereas that question is asking how to avoid it.

Question: What about the history, definition, or nuances of the girlfriend-boyfriend relationship terminology causes people to not want to use it regarding old people?


I get the feeling from some comments that I need to express what my own use would be. I have generally associated "dating" with "girlfriend"/"boyfriend", and considered them to be the most basic and direct way to refer to those things. As such, I would find applying this terminology to any unmarried couple to be preferable. I believe that the hesitation I refer to in the title applies to all demographics.

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Presumably the female in question is not a "girl", hence "girlfriend" is inappropriate. End of story. [And I find nothing comical about "lady friend". The "cult of youth" that envelops Western culture today and makes everyone want to understate their age (and gives us personal ads like "Boy, 40, seeks…") may not have fully permeated those in their late 60s.] –  ShreevatsaR Aug 21 '11 at 5:37
    
I'm 24, and I don't find "lady friend" comical at all. In fact, I prefer it in this context: it sounds less childish and more appropriate given that (as ShreevatsaR and Brian M. Scott have pointed out), the woman in question is not (I hope) young enough to be a "girl". –  John Bartholomew Aug 21 '11 at 16:21
    
I'm voting to close on the grounds that this isn't about language at all. It's about young people's attitudes to older people's sexuality and relationships. –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '11 at 18:01
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@Fumble Let's take a moment to note the obvious incorrectness of your comment. No where did I say this was about the lack of use of the term by a certain age group. People of all ages use "girlfriend" in reference to young couples and don't use it in reference to old couples. Regarding the rest of your comment, you might want to reread what's next to the bold word "Question" above. –  user12178 Aug 21 '11 at 21:42
    
To repeat, this is not about language, it's about attitudes. We will learn little about language as such by analysing why some people are diffident about using words overwhelmingly used to describe relationships between young people, in a superficially similar context involving older people. –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '11 at 22:28
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2 Answers

As ShreevatsaR said, it’s perfectly straightforward: for many speakers girl still means (or at least strongly connotes) a female child or at most a young woman, and for those speakers a woman who is likely to be dating a man in his late 60s simply isn’t a girl. And if she isn’t (in their terms) a girl, it’s entirely understandable that she can’t be a girlfriend, either. No further explanation seems necessary.

That said, there is considerable variation, and a fair number of speakers would have no hesitation in calling her his girlfriend. For example, even at 63 I’d still be comfortable calling a woman my girlfriend, unless of course she herself objected to the term, and I’d have no objection to being called her boyfriend. For me (and many others) the meaning of these terms is no longer strictly compositional.

I see nothing comical about lady friend; at worst it has a slightly old-fashioned feel, and it’s an obvious choice for someone who finds girlfriend inappropriate on grounds of age. For those who find it too much of a period piece, there are always the very modern significant other and the neutral partner.

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Would "lady friend" then imply a dating relationship to you? My reading had always been that "girlfriend", as a word, is more than the sum of its parts. –  user12178 Aug 21 '11 at 15:32
    
As you say, there’s quite some variation. In my experience (not necessarily representative!), many speakers in the US use girlfriend for women of any age, while in the UK and Canada, it’s used less for older women. Conversely, in the UK, partner is quite natural for all older couples, whereas at least in the northeastern US, it carries a much stronger connotation for many speakers of referring to a same-sex couple. So… YMMV. –  PLL Aug 21 '11 at 18:04
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@Zassounotsukushi: It would depend on context, but in the absence of any context, lady friend would indicate to me a steady relationship that might be anywhere on the scale from ‘dating’ to ‘husband and wife in all but name’. –  Brian M. Scott Aug 21 '11 at 20:31
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@PLL: Both partner and significant other have the advantage that they can be applied to couples of all flavors. I suspect that the perception of partner in this respect is influenced by (at least) a couple of factors. (1) The word is less likely to be strongly associated with same-sex couples in places where girlfriend isn’t felt to be suitable for older women. (2) It’s more likely to be so associated where same-sex couples aren’t too thin on the ground and are acceptable enough that most people want a polite term. –  Brian M. Scott Aug 21 '11 at 20:43
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@FumbleFingers: ‘Still’ merely indicates that I recognize that the usage of girl has changed and very likely is still changing; it should not be read as an expression of any value judgement at all. I doubt that girl will altogether lose its association with youth in the foreseeable future, but I’d not be surprised if the association weakened further. I don’t see this as much of a problem, however: context is a very powerful tool for disambiguation. –  Brian M. Scott Aug 21 '11 at 23:16
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I would use other, colloquial terms like "main squeeze" or "significant other," that refer to the relationship, rather than the "girl" part.

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