Q: I am 74, widowed, and “seeing” a former female high school classmate of the same age. Calling her my “girlfriend” sounds ludicrous and I loathe “significant other.” The word “partner” usually means same-sex partner, so that is not applicable in our case. English needs a new word to describe a committed, romantic, sexual relationship between septuagenarians! Where is Shakespeare when we really need him?
A: English has lots of ways for lovers—married or unmarried, young or old—to address one another. The two of us call each other (please don’t cringe) “honey bunny” and “sweetie pie.”
A problem arises, however, when one member of an older unmarried couple has to refer to the other in speaking with outsiders. As you say, “girlfriend,” with its girlish associations, doesn’t quite suit a woman in her seventies.
Maybe Shakespeare could come up with the perfect fit, but none of the words we can think of (“sweetheart,” “friend,” “steady,” “soul mate,” “lady friend,” and so on) seem right.
If we weren’t married, we’d probably refer to ourselves as “companions” when speaking to others. It’s not very felicitous, but we can’t think of anything better.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with using “girlfriend” for your septuagenarian honey. We’ve checked half a dozen standard dictionaries, and all of them define the term as a woman of any age in a romantic or sexual relationship.
When “girlfriend” showed up in English in the mid-19th century, it simply referred to “a female friend; esp. a woman’s close female friend,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest example in the OED is from the August 1859 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “A demure little widow, much more gay and girlish than any of her girl-friends when she chose to forsake her rôle.”
In the late 19th century, “girlfriend” took on the sense you’re asking about: “A female with whom a person has a romantic or sexual relationship; a female partner or lover.”
The dictionary adds that the term refers to “a female member of an unmarried couple, in some contexts esp. a young couple whose relationship is conducted on a relatively casual basis.”
The first Oxford citation for the romantic/sexual sense is from the dedication in a book of medieval poetry edited by Frederick James Furnivall and published in 1892: “To the memory of Teena Rochfort Smith my much-respected and deeply-regretted girl-friend.”
(Furnivall, the second editor of the OED, left his wife for Rochfort Smith, a Shakespearean scholar who died in 1883 at the age of 22.)
The dictionary’s amorous citations for “girlfriend” referred to young women at first, but the usage has widened in recent decades to include older women.
Here’s an example from the Jan. 4, 2001, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London: “A pensioner literally saw red when his 79-year-old girl-friend cancelled their wedding for a third time.”
Interestingly, “girls” wasn’t always a girlie word, as we point out in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.
In about 1300, when the word made its first known appearance in print, a “girl” was a child of either sex, and “girls” meant children, period.
In the 14th century, for example, the poem Piers Plowman refers to a children’s Latin grammar book as a “gramer for girles.” And in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer refers to small children as “yonge gerles.”
But in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the word began to mean female children, and by the end of the 15th century the androgynous meaning of “girls” was lost.
[Update, April 27, 2015. One of our readers sent a few comments, which we’ve edited: “I’m 83 and my partner is 81. And yes, we do describe each other as ‘partner.’ Our locality has a procedure for filing as domestic partners. The position I held at the time of our official agreement required such a filing so that my partner could be on my medical plan. I agree that referring to him as my ‘boyfriend’ would be incomprehensible to anyone who knows me or him; ‘boyfriend’/‘girlfriend’ just doesn’t fit at our age. I really don’t care if we’re thought not to be a heterosexual couple. I think your correspondent should just relax. When introducing this lady he should say, ‘Have you met Sally?’ Let the other party make any determination without further comment.”]