Language Evolution: “Partner”

The use of "partner" to describe someone with whom one is in a romantic relationship has interesting connotations.

For quite some time, “partner” has been used as a polite was to refer to someone with whom a homosexual was in a committed relationship.   Gradually, it came to be used more frequently to refer to someone a heterosexual is in a relationship with, whether because it’s more age-appropriate than “boyfriend/girlfriend” or has more polite connotations than “lover” or “person with whom I’m shacked up.”    Now, I’m also seeing it used in place of “husband/wife” for heterosexual couples.

This is an interesting evolution in the direction of gender neutral, politically correct language.   “Partner” has no gender or legal implications.    So, used in conversation with a casual acquaintance, it carries no information that can be used to form value judgments.  The person referenced could be of the same or opposite sex.   The union could be legally recognized (whether through marriage, civil union, or other arrangement) or not.

I wonder if, over time, this will become the preferred usage, with, say, “wife” becoming antiquated?

As a side note, “partner” is a somewhat peculiar word in this context, since it’s still more widely used in a business context.  (There’s also it’s close cousin, “pardner,” which is mostly confined to old cowboy movies.)   Until some sort of convention is established (for example, “business partner” being the accepted form for that relationship), there will be some awkward confusion.

Roundabout hat tip to Keith Humphreys.  The link has an amusing but only tangentially related anecdote.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I can also see it as having the connotation of equality, which has its appeal as well and could be especially appealing in professional circles.

    By the same token it still connotes to me some type of unmarried status

  2. The “social partner” versus “business partner” distinction still needs to be worked out. I likely could have hooked up with a quite attractive woman on a business trip once had she not misunderstood my reference to something my partner had done and lost interest in me — I was talking about the lawyer with whom I co-owned a law firm, not the man she incorrectly assumed I was romantically involved.

  3. john personna says:

    For me “partner” started with John Wayne.

  4. @Transplanted Lawyer:

    May I suggest that next time you use the term “associate” or “partner at my firm” in future such circumstances 😉

  5. Boyd says:

    There’s also it’s close cousin, “pardner,” which is mostly confined to old cowboy movies.

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, there, pardner. Ah ain’t in no cowboy movie, an’ Ah ain’t even a cowboy (but Ah am a Texan), but Ah use “pardner” all the tahm when sumbody else might say “buddy” or “pal.”

    Jist trynta keep the rekerd strait.