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I am trying to use a noun to refer to youths in a relationship (boyfriend girlfriend), but even though technically it is correct, "couple" to me just sounds a bit too serious and old fashioned. It's more common for this age group to refer to themselves as "going out" or just "together". It's similar to the difference between "partner/significant other" and "boyfriend/girlfriend" where one is used more often depending on the age of the two.

What should I use? Below is an example sentence:

Example

They walked into the restaurant and saw a few other couples around their age.

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    "Couples" may sound a little bit too serious for relationships between youths, but in the context of your example sentence I think it fits perfectly well.
    – nnnnnn
    Jul 6, 2021 at 4:29
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    Couple sounds perfectly fine and casual to my ear (British English, in my late 30’s) — it doesn’t necessarily suggest anything more serious than “going out” or “together”. I guess this may be regional or age-group related; it’d be interesting to know if other commenters share OP’s intuition.
    – PLL
    Jul 6, 2021 at 12:06
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    @Lambie careful with that though as readers could infer much more intimate (though still less serious) goings on...
    – ZachP
    Jul 6, 2021 at 17:44
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    Pairs of people dancing or skating together are called "couples" so I don't think this necessarily carries any serious connotation that wouldn't work in the context of the example. Jul 7, 2021 at 0:34
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    The question says that "couples" sounds too old-fashioned, but lovebirds is the accepted answer? What's the audience for this writing?
    – barbecue
    Jul 7, 2021 at 18:04

8 Answers 8

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item

Slang (in American English) a couple identified publicly as sweethearts or lovers

  • John and Joan are an item (Collins)

However, for your sentence lovebirds might work better:

They walked into the restaurant and saw a few other lovebirds around their age.

lovebirds (plural, informal) : people who are lovers : people who are in a romantic relationship

  • The two lovebirds were spotted … boating on the water during the day, before hitting the club at night. — Maeve McDermott (M-W)
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    Lovebirds seems to be very ancient to my ancient brain. That term was outdated in the 1960s. Is that term still in use? Jul 7, 2021 at 10:23
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    @fev Lovebirds would be perfectly okay with regard to time traveling back to November 5, 1955. It sounds very archaic. Jul 7, 2021 at 10:32
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    @fev Most of those books are about birds. A genus of parrots, Agapornis, are commonly called lovebirds. Jul 7, 2021 at 10:38
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    I think that "lovebirds" today would only be said for deliberate effect; it sounds at least patronising and quite possibly sarcastic or sinister. "Our dinner was spoiled by the lovebirds at the next table billing and cooing", or "Right pair of lovebirds you two are". Jul 7, 2021 at 12:52
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    Agreed with @PaulJohnson, “lovebirds” more often than not has a teasing quality to it. Often in good humor, but still a weird word choice for the completely neutral observation that there are other couples in the restaurant.
    – KRyan
    Jul 7, 2021 at 15:11
35

There are lots of slang terms for a romantic couple, or for the state of being in such a couple, or for the actions that make up being in one.

“They’re an item,” yes, absolutely, that’s something people say of the two people in a couple. Each of them could be a “lovebird,” though that refers to the people and not the relationship. “I ship them,” is also a thing, though usually reserved for fictional characters—and also usually applied to more hypothetical couples, two people you believe should be a couple but aren’t actually (yet?). That can be varied to say something like “they’re my favorite ship,” to refer to the (possibly imagined) relationship. There are other words you could use.

But for your example sentence? Couple itself is, in my experience, the most natural and appropriate word choice for that sentence. I honestly can’t imagine ever referring to the other couples as anything other than “couples” in that context. I am a native English speaker from the northeast US in my 30s; I have also spent time on the West Coast of the US. I note comments by PLL and Konrad Rudolph with the same sentiments and experience with Britain.

Beyond that, I have certainly never heard “item” used in the plural to refer to multiple couples; “a few other items around their age,” to me, screams “older author misusing slang from a younger generation.” It just sounds wrong, like one just looked up slang for “couple” and inserted it into the sentence. “Ship” is even worse in that sentence, since people actually out on a date hardly meet the definition of a “ship” in the first place.

Ultimately, I can’t prove or even really provide solid evidence for my position that “couple” is pretty much the only word that fits in that sentence; I have only my experience, and comments suggesting similar experiences, to offer.

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    Seconding this. "Couple" feels more natural and "lovebirds" actually feels dated. At least in the usage I'm most familiar with. (Live in the Metro Atlanta area in the US, but also maintain a lot of long distance friendships all over. Most speaking US English.) Jul 6, 2021 at 18:07
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    If I were speaking of someone I know I might just say "[Name] and the person they're seeing", but I don't worry about that level of clarity when speaking generally about unknowns in a room. In that case, I would just say "couples". Jul 6, 2021 at 18:12
  • @J... Very much millenial or even more so gen-z slang, at least outside specific fandoms (e.g. Star Trek where I believe it originated); I’m a bit out of the appropriate age-range myself. By the way, though, please avoid using the code formatting (backticks) for non-code text—it can cause problems for alternative browsing technologies, e.g. screen-readers for the blind. (Yes, that makes it pretty pointless on ELU, but the site runs on the same software as Stack Overflow etc.)
    – KRyan
    Jul 7, 2021 at 15:03
  • @J... Well, part of it is simply web standards, not anything SE has or hasn’t done. Arguably, they could provide another option for block quotes in a comment, but that’s not going to happen; it’s always been this way, and the established best practice is simply to use quotation marks and/or italics or whatever.
    – KRyan
    Jul 7, 2021 at 16:52
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    To quote J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Chapter 15: The Beetle at Bay): "The sight made Harry feel uncomfortable, particularly when, looking around the teashop, he saw that it was full of nothing but couples, all of them holding hands. Perhaps Cho would expect him to hold her hand." A book about youths written (primarily) for a younger readership. "Couples" is the right word. Jul 8, 2021 at 8:44
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pairs

To me, "pairs" is more casual for groups of two, while "couples" implies a stronger relationship between the two individuals. From the dating angle, beginning a relationship is sometimes described as "pairing off".

To expand OP's example a little

They walked into the restaurant and saw a few other pairs around their age as well as larger groups of friends

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    "pairs" doesn't sound like people in a relationship to me. It just means two people together.
    – Barmar
    Jul 7, 2021 at 13:46
  • @Barmar In fact, it's what you would say if everyone was eating in twos but not dating. Jul 7, 2021 at 22:27
  • @AzorAhai-him- Indeed. If you were holding a square dance, you'd start by telling everyone to pair up, and there's no expectation that they're in any kind of relationship (but some might be).
    – Barmar
    Jul 7, 2021 at 22:29
  • @Barmar - in general I agree that "pairs" doesn't have to imply a relationship, but OP wants something that implies a relationship less than "couples" does, particularly if they describe themselves as "going out" or just "together". And as I said, there is a history of describing dating as "pairing off" so I felt it was a reasonable option that was worth mentioning.
    – Dragonel
    Jul 7, 2021 at 23:44
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I would never normally consider looking at the English StackExchange, but saw this post as a "Hot Network Question" on StackOverflow and thought I'd chip in. As a student in my final year of high school I feel somewhat qualified to have a relevant opinion on this.

I believe the reason you want to have a less formal word for couple is because of the informal nature of young relationships. They are often short lived as those involved are inexperienced. Because of this, I understand your want for a more appropriate word. Despite this, I do not believe such a word exists in our language. I would put this down to the lack of want for a word by the young people in the relationships. The people know that when they are young they are not likely to start a life long relationship, and that it is more probable that it will be short term. Because of this, putting a term that suggests a long-term relationship would not sit right. On the other hand, if a word that did suggest a short-term relationship were to exist I believe it would quickly attain negative connotations from the youth having such relationships. This would be because it would verbalize and concrete that feeling that their relationship was destined to be short lived or that it was not correct.

Teenagers choose to not use any specific or more accurate words for their relationships because they don't want to place any labels. The question "do they have a thing?" is common because the term 'thing' is ambiguous enough to cover many different situations.

'Couple' is probably the best you are going to get. It puts it how it is, without any additional connotations stirring up its meaning.

-- To comment on previous answers

  • Item - outdated, sounds completely wrong in this situation
  • Lovebirds - similar situation as above
  • Ship - Totally wrong situation
  • Pair - slightly better as it is more ambiguous, but still not quite right
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English Club defines young couple as

two young people in a romantic relationship

For example

  • The park was full of young couples sitting together or walking hand in hand.
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    I like this. The adjective provides the context that the OP is looking to convey, rather than just being a generic "can be any age" couple.
    – Bobson
    Jul 8, 2021 at 22:10
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    I agree. Definitely the best so far. Jul 9, 2021 at 6:46
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When I was in high school, I really disliked when my personal preferences were disrespected. Kids in late middle school or high school might not be fully-fledged adults yet, and let's face it: no one's really an "adult" until they've had enough real-world experience to figure out how it all works, but giving them a certain level of respect and autonomy helps them to learn and grow into respectful adults. If you expect a teen to "act like an adult" then make sure you treat them like one! Having grown up in the "respect your elders" world, I have now trashed that for the "If you respect me, I'll continue to respect you, but if you show me disrespect then I reserve the right to revoke your respect privileges until you treat me with the basic level of respect I deserve."

That said, if you're talking to a specific person or group of people, use the generic "couple" and see how they respond. If they correct you, just swap to what they use. You can also ask them what their preferences are.

From your example, tho:

They walked into the restaurant and saw a few other couples around their age.

This example sounds to me like there's an assumption being made about the connection other strangers have. Unless you know they're actually a couple, this would just be "... a few other groups of people around their age" or "... a few other pairs ..." as others have mentioned.

With all due respect to you as your thoughts and opinions are 100% valid: IMO just because someone is "young" or the assumption/stereotype is "ah, kids just don't want something serious at that age" or "kids don't use serious language to describe relationships" that's probably more a result of where they're growing up and who they're around than anything. Unless explicitly corrected, most people in my HS would not argue if they said "Yeah, we're going out" and then 5 minutes later someone described them as "a couple". "Boyfriend/girlfriend" is also not age-restricted, as my partner (F29) and I (M27) often use it to describe each other (for example: If one of us ordered food but the other person is heading downstairs to pick it up, we'll say "My bf/gf will be down in a second to get it, thanks!" as she identifies F and presents F and I identify as M and present M, so it's easy for someone making quick, "book-by-the-cover" judgements to assume "ah, ok, that's probably him/her.").

TL;DR: Use couple if you know they're together unless they correct you. Use "groups", "pair(s)", or "other people" if you don't know if they're together or not.

Sources:

  1. I was in HS and dating seriously within the last decade
  2. lots of work both in and out of therapy to realize things that bothered me in HS (some of which continued to my current age)

Cheers!

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ship

A slang term that came about within the past five to 10 years and has been used fairly recently, though I haven't heard it used a lot of late, not that I'm really wired into that anymore now that my youngest has gone off to college and I no longer have a house full of teenagers, is "ship," which is short for "relationship," for example, one might say:

"They walked in the restaurant and saw a few other ships around their age."

"Ship" is simply an abbreviation of "relationship," in the sense of romantic relationship or couple, though, as it pertains to youth, I wouldn't go so far as to say it necessarily includes only couples, slang and labels used by youth tending towards more open-ended definitions, so, for example, one would not expect a throuple to be excluded from being called a ship, but I digress.

It is from the slang noun "ship" that the slang verb "ship" then evolved, so when someone tries to get two people to romantically couple, wishes they would, fantasizes they would, or really wishes them to continue after they already have, one may say something like, "I ship Ben and Jennifer."

Coinciding with the advent of the slang term "ship" was the start of the practice of forming a portmanteau out of the names of the members of a ship (e.g., calling the couple or ship in the above paragraph's example "Bennifer" by combining their names "Ben" and "Jennifer"), so we began to hear things like, "I ship Bennifer" (i.e., "I ship Ben and Jennifer."). That coincidence resulted in an alternate definition of "ship," a verb meaning to create a single, collective name for a couple by combining their individual names, but that definition is one used only by older people as it came from younger people saying things like, "I ship Bennifer," and older people misinterpreting them as saying that they're dubbing them "Bennifer" rather than assuming that name to be understood and actually saying that they wish them to be in relationship. So, while so naming a couple is now a slang definition of "ship," it's slang that only older people use, one that when younger people hear, they roll their eyes at, a mockery of older people appropriating and then misusing their slang.

Anyway, slang comes and goes in the zeitgeist at the speed of sound, so my caveat to you and others reading answers to this question is that any answer to this question, aside from being prone to being unfounded and/or opinion-based as the scant sources providing recent slang (i.e., what kids these days are saying) and definitions are notoriously unreliable (e.g., Urban Dictionary), is that answers will tend to be fleeting, nonpermanent, quite possibly no longer true within a short timespan, so while this answer may be true in 2021, it may not be true five or 10 years from now, which is important as there are many answers on this site that are that old and those answers come up in Google searches and searches on this site and those answers are often used by users in reference to other questions, like to close one for being a duplicate.

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    Hmmmm I wouldn't refer to a regular real life couple as a ship, but them, I might be biased because I saw that slang rising in the fandoms back in the stone age of the internet. Fictional characters, yes. Celebrities, yes. Regular couple next door or sitting beside me in a restaurant? Nope Jul 6, 2021 at 7:20
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    @JulianaKarasawaSouza I can just barely imagine referring to “characters” in one’s office, school, friends group, etc. as a potential “ship,” but that label would almost certainly be dropped the moment they actually discussed going out, much less by the time they found themselves on a date. Also can’t see using it on random people I happen to see somewhere and know nothing about.
    – KRyan
    Jul 6, 2021 at 14:17
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    "Yeah, man, we had a ship.". But not to describe couples at tables in restaurants.
    – Lambie
    Jul 6, 2021 at 16:20
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    I always took "a ship" to mean "a hypothetical romantic pairing of two fictional characters who are not actually shown to be in a relationship in canon." If I read something like "they saw a few other ships around their age," some of the things that would cross my mind are that maybe they saw a bunch of whiteboards with ships written on them, or maybe this is a story about anthropomorphic watercraft. Jul 6, 2021 at 21:01
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Printed slang is always a mixed bag, but if you're trying to lean more into the ephemeral/unsure nature of young love you could use an exaggerating hyphenate:

They walked into the restaurant and saw a few other don't-call-them-couples around their age.

It's a stretch of the single word requirement but fits the lingual feel of one word and is implication dense.

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    If I read "don't-call-them-couples" I'd assume they were hiding or denying the fact that they're in any relationship whatsoever. Jul 6, 2021 at 21:06
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    Which is sort of the point -- teens are often hesitant to admit their status as a "couple" specifically because it implies a level of seriousness they're afraid the other half may not be ready for. This leans into OP's request for something less than serious.
    – ZachP
    Jul 7, 2021 at 17:05

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