Sometimes the New York Times profiles people that are genuine monsters of upper-class naiveté and privilege — like, say, the parents that have their kids flown to summer camp on private jets or The Ivy Plus Society. But sometimes the NYT does stories on well-meaning people whose lives end up looking really inane in print, like the non-married spouses who fret about the ridiculous names and phrases they call each other.
Here is writer Elizabeth Weil setting the stage for this scintillating trend story:
NOW that we've come to some consensus on same-sex marriage, let's move on to the next puzzle: what to call two people who act as if they are married but are not.
Here's the first thing: that isn't the next puzzle! There are so, so, soooo many more puzzles left to complete. The "what to call two people who act as if they are married but are not" puzzle is so far deep in the puzzle closet that no one is going to look for it for years. And when they find it, there will be three dead spiders in the box.
Here's our first subject:
"I went through a phase of just calling him Eric, even to people who didn't know who that was," said the master wordsmith Ann Kjellberg, 50, editor of the journal Little Star and the literary executor of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Eric Zerof spent 15 years as her live-in not-spouse and is the father of Ms. Kjellberg's child. "I kept thinking, ‘This should not be this hard!' I was very unhappy about the situation. I could never find a word I liked."
It shouldn't be this hard because it isn't this hard. "Eric" is just fine. You could never find a word you liked because you're a master wordsmith that edits a journal. It's your curse.
Next, Weil elaborates on the dilemma:
Everyone agrees that partner sounds awful - too anodyne, empty, cold. Lover may be worse - too sexualized, graphic, one-dimensional. Boyfriend sounds too young. Significant other sounds too '80s. Special friend or just friend (both favored by the 65-and-over crowd) are just too ridiculous.
It's almost — almost — as is if this entire discussion is just too ridiculous, and that adults should just explain the situation with whoever they're talking to. Even though we like to think that we live inside Seinfeld, we don't. There are real problems out there, you guys!
Anne Tierney, 32, a bodyworker in West Palm Beach, Fla., went for "fusband," which, she explains, is a catchall for "fake husband, future husband." (Ms. Tierney's fusband, Ozzy, calls Ms. Tierney "wifey.") Technically the two are engaged, but Ms. Tierney said: "The word fiancé makes me cringe. What am I, in France?"
Fusband!!!!!! You actually have to hand it to Tierney, "fusband" catches just about everything. Funny husband, facetious husband, frustrating husband, famous husband, fanciful husband, farting husband. Definitely farting husband. I love it.
Joan Linder, 42, an artist and associate professor of visual studies at the University at Buffalo, lives with the man she winkingly calls her baby daddy
Ahh, steamy. Wink wink.
"It's the last stage of connection to rebellion, punk rock, countercultural - all those pieces of my youth."
Being gay does not make the terminology of unmarriage any easier. "I usually go with boyfriend, which makes people ask how long we've been dating," said Brett Berk, 43, who has been not-married to his boyfriend, Tal McThenia, 45, for 23 years. "But partner is disgusting. So it's boyfriend - or antagonist."
Things really shouldn't be getting this serious. They shouldn't! It's just a word. It's okay.
Oh, hey, it's Katie Roiphe.
The culture critic Katie Roiphe, author of "In Praise of Messy Lives," agreed that our lame vocabulary reveals our unease. "We have only stiff or silly phrases - like significant other, partner or baby daddy," she said. "To me this signals a discomfort and a lack of acceptance."
Ms. Roiphe, unmarried herself, prefers "the older, more comic phrases: consort and paramour."
Now, that's what I call comedy.
Still, Ms. Kjellberg, who eventually did marry for health insurance, remains puzzled by the lexicographic problem. "Not marrying really seems like a perfectly normal way of going about things," she said. "Do we really need to be stuck with such horrible terms?"
No, we don't. It's okay — here's a suggestion: fusband! I know it's weird, but it's just a word. It will all come out eventually. These poor people, without a single appropriate word to refer to another person. Also, these poor people, made to look like frivolous fools by the New York Times when in reality they're perfectly harmless and are more or less aware of the foolishness of the situation. The paper of record! The Grey Lady! Hey, that's a good one...
[via New York Times, image via Shutterstock]