I searched Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary for this word phrase " significant other" and it shows that is often used humorously but in Longman Dictionary it is a regular phrase. Which one is correct? I have used Youglish website to hear natural examples of this phrase but never heard a humorous use of it or may I was not able to recognize that .

Is it often used humorously?

  • You would have to be a particularly sombre person to use it without a sense of irony, wouldn't you?
    – WS2
    Aug 10, 2017 at 8:17
  • "Work" is often used humorously.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 10, 2017 at 11:54

2 Answers 2


The phrase "significant other" is deliberately intended to be very generic, including husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, straight, gay, or non-romantic and non-sexual partner. Because it is a generic phrase it becomes funny when applied to specific cases.

If a man says, to someone who knows he is married, that he will have to ask his "significant other", then this is just a long-winded way of saying "wife". This is a form of comic periphrasis, the use of a long phrase where a short one would do. It is also funny because it is inappropriately generic.

In the Life of Brian a beatitude is misheard as "Blessed are the cheese-makers", and someone says it doesn't only refer to cheese-makers but to all manufacturers of dairy products. Here the interpretation is more generic, but still unexpectedly specific, and that produces the humour.

Another example is where someone was accused of assaulting a police officer with a citrus fruit and a take-away meal. If it is necessary to mention the weapons at all, why not say an orange and a fish supper?. A statement such as "My least favourite mammal is my Uncle Hector" also uses this type of humour. Another example would be to introduce your brother or sister as your "sibling". Sibling is an excellent generic word where appropriate, but is humorously inappropriate to refer to a specific individual.

Significant Other works fine as a generic term, though. Another instance where it can be used without humour is when, for example, a young man says "This is Lisa, my significant other". In this case he means something more than a casual girlfriend, or at least he wants her to think that is what he means.


From my perspective (Australian English) it's an overly formal, somewhat archaic term that might appear on a tax form or similar. Conversationally, the commonplace term is simply "partner". It's gender agnostic, and institutionally agnostic (ie doesn't imply marriage, civil union, defacto relationship, etc) - so it has all the same meanings of "significant other" but less formality.

Someone using "significant other" in conversation would almost certainly be doing so with a dose of irony, joking about that additional formality and old-fashionedness - in the same way someone might say "I shall be off to pilot my automobile to my place of residence" instead of "I'm driving home in my car."


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.