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Parallax - Advice            April 3, 2000

    Correspondent questions the social value of "significant other"

Dear Conversely,

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I can't deal with this term, "significant other," any more. I mean, what the hell does it mean? I know it's supposed to be politically correct, but it just seems so sterile and dumb and plain plain wrong. And it's even worse when people say "S.O." It just pisses me off. Is there any alternative, is there anything to be done?

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Her view:

Dear Pissed-off,

Hello?! Lighten up and join us in the new millennium. The term significant other has come about because there is no clear-cut categorization of roles anymore. Men have boyfriends, women have girlfriends and boyfriends, and some mature women use "gentleman friend" because "boy" seems too young a term. "Significant other" is to the point and includes everyone. It's very insensitive to invite a man and his girlfriend to an event only to find out he'd rather bring his boyfriend. So we give up the guessing game to be all inclusive. We allow for everyone to choose lifestyles comfortably. I like "significant other" - even "S.O." - it's easy and risk free.

Alternatively, you could research everybody you meet and anybody you would like to invite somewhere to find out the exact characterization of their relationship. Find out the appropriate term for "lesbian lover" because I don't think it is such. I think it's "domestic partner" - or is that for gay men? So don't use "significant other" and get on with the research while keeping count of those you've offended. Plan to give up at least one hobby as you embark on your quest to eliminate "significant other" from the English language - a worthy cause, I think. I wonder why people don't spend more time thinking about this.

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His view:

Dear Pissed-off,

While the term significant other fails to poison me with the same massive ill-effects it has on you, I can say I am not too fond of it either.

In principle, the term strikes me as practical and unobtrusive. I feel the word 'significant' is, for the most part, appropriate in its connotations of importance and value. Sometimes, admittedly, those are not necessarily the qualities one attributes to a girlfriend, or boyfriend, but such a qualm seems even more trivial than this analysis.

On the other hand, 'other' is more objectionable. I mean, 'other' could be anything. Other thing, other day, other one-celled microorganism, other person. 'Other' has the faint stench of a vague and bland concoction meant to please everyone and keep oversensitive others from otherwise being offended.

I am also concerned (and I use that word though it is too strong) about what happens when an S.O. is no longer an S.O. Is it then appropriate to inquire about your ex-wife, or ex-boyfriend? Is it better to say "how is your ex-S.O.?" Or maybe the solution is to ask about your in-significant other?

Having written all that, my only recommendation is that you stop ranting about S.O.'s and control yourself. You're even worse than the PC people who invented this. If you don't like it, just don't use it.

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