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In North America (especially Canada and the United States), the word partner is more and more commonly used to describe someone who would otherwise traditionally have been called a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Why is this, and what is the history behind it?

In trying to answer this question, I came up with a number of theories, but I haven’t been able to verify them, so I’m interested to see whether an expert can shed light on what’s happening here.

Just to be clear, I understand the historical etymology of partner. My question comes from the recent use of the word by people who would not have used it just a few decades ago.


These are my theories:

  1. Political Correctness — With the rise of gay culture and the acceptance of same-sex relations in the Western world, partner provides a gender-neutral word to describe someone’s significant other. By using partner, a person would not have to reveal the sex of their significant other, and so this use, especially among the internet and counter-cultures, in the name of political correctness, then spread to opposite-sex couples.

  2. Relationship ComplexitiesBoyfriend and girlfriend are somehow perceived as narrowly defining a relationship, implying certain undesirable characteristics about that couple’s relationship. With the growth of the internet, casual dating, and delayed marriage, relationships have become more complicated than ever. Partner is used to neutrally describe the relationship without implying too much or too little about how the couple feel about each other. This may have come from the historic use of partner to describe a significant other in a domestic partnership.

  3. Opposition to Patriarchy — (similar to political correctness) Terms like marriage and boyfriend or girlfriend are perceived by the hippie or hipster cultures to have come from a time of patriarchy. Partner is a way to escape from this historic oppression over relationships.

  • Partner as 'significant other': Significant other (abbreviated SO) is colloquially used as a gender-neutral term for a person's partner in an intimate relationship without disclosing or presuming anything about marital status, relationship status, or sexual orientation. Synonyms with similar properties include sweetheart, better half, spouse, domestic partner, lover, soulmate, or life partner. In the United States the term is sometimes used in invitations, such as to weddings and office parties. This use of the term has become common in the UK in correspondence from hospitals. (Wikipedia) – user66974 Mar 13 '15 at 20:47
  • @Josh61 Those are all facts that I know. My question is "why?". Why are people now commonly using the term partner to describe these relationships? Why not one of the gazillion other relationship terms? And also, what's the history that drove "partner" up while other terms remained less used? – Nick2253 Mar 13 '15 at 20:49
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    Your "politically correct" hypothesis cannot be right. "By using "partner", a homosexual person would not have to reveal their homosexuality when describing their significant other" ... "Hi, I'm Mike. This is Paul, my partner" kind of says it all; there's really not much left to the imagination! – Andrew Leach Mar 13 '15 at 20:50
  • @AndrewLeach Obviously when directly introducing them. But for example, I'm talking with a coworker, and they ask me "Are you doing anything this weekend?" I could respond with, "I'm going skiing with my partner." and not have to reveal anything about my sexual orientation, whereas boyfriend/girlfriend would. – Nick2253 Mar 13 '15 at 20:51
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    @tchrist I'm not sure how much time you've spent around those subcultures, but political correctness is a huge part of those cultures. Freedom of self expression and avoidance of offense or injustice towards the disenfranchised are hallmarks of especially the hipster culture, especially with regards to relationship issues. – Nick2253 Mar 14 '15 at 0:16
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About a year after his visit to Philadelphia, a Mr. Fowler, who possessed some taste in painting, requested Mr. West to allow Benjamin to spend a few weeks at his house. Mr. F. had lately lost his domestic partner; and had procured an English governess to educate his daughters.

The Analectic Magazine, and Naval Chronicle...: Comprising Original Reviews, Biography, Analytical Abstracts of New Publications, Translations from French Journals, and Selections from the Most Esteemed British Reviews, Volume 8, published by Moses Thomas and printed by James Maxwell. Philadelphia, 1816. (Google eBook)

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