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December 4, 2003 - Vocabulary of Marriage - 2003-12-04

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: December 4, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- the vocabulary of marriage in America.

RS: Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She says Americans are less wedded these days to terms like "courtship" to describe the path to marriage. For one thing, people are waiting longer to get married. For another, she says, more than forty-percent of first-time marriages are likely to end in divorce.

AA: Even terms like "husband" and "wife" can't be taken for granted, not when some would prefer the gender-neutral "spouse," or when talking about two men or two women. Currently no state recognizes same-sex marriage, although Vermont offers homosexuals the legal benefits, through what is called a civil union.

RS: Things could change. Last month the highest court in Massachusetts gave the legislature until May to permit same-sex marriage. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead says all these trends in American society have led to two major changes in the language.

WHITEHEAD: "One is that it has been significantly de-gendered. That is, the language has become more gender-neutral. And secondly, the language has become more morally neutral. So that we tend to now use the language of the social sciences, economics or sociology, rather than religion, to talk about marriage and courtship. So, yes, 'courtship' has fallen into disuse. It has a distinctly old-fashioned air. I think 'betrothal' is another word that we don't hear very often.

"'Engagement' has become, I think, it's still common and popular, but it isn't as big a benchmark event, and therefore it doesn't crop up so much in our language as it did perhaps two-and-a-half or three decades ago."

AA: "What else could people say?"

WHITEHEAD: "People who are planning to get married are very often living together, so they've established the custom of referring to each other as 'my partner,' 'my significant other,' 'my girlfriend' or 'boyfriend.' Interestingly, we also have a neologism called 'starter marriage' that refers to marriages that begin and end very quickly."

RS: "Now, you refer to 'gender-neutral' and 'morally-neutral.' What do you mean by morally-neutral?"

WHITEHEAD: "Well, one example is that of course people who live together, we used to say 'they're shacking up.' And there was definitely moral criticism. Now, of course, it's very neutral. It's 'living together' or even more social scientific, 'cohabitation.'"

RS: "It sounds like, you know, you're raising mice or something."

WHITEHEAD: "Well, exactly. One thing that's interesting to me is the degree to which the words 'love,' 'romance,' 'my one and only' have been leeched out of the whole vocabulary that surrounds courtship and marriage. It's more practical and more highly rationalized, so that some of the -- along with the moral content, the religious and spiritual and, you know, the 'soul mate' notion has also been leeched out of the language. It is very much down-to-earth and close to the language of the business world."

AA: "And you might end up with a 'trophy wife,' right?"

WHITEHEAD: "Oh, that's another good one. I forgot about that. A trophy wife is the, usually, second marriage by a powerful, older man to a young, beautiful, fertile woman. And the implication is the first wife has been worn out or used up, or simply doesn't reflect the social aspirations of the powerful man."

RS: That was Barbara Dayfoe Whitehead at the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

AA: So then there are practical issues. Like what should an unmarried couple who live together call each other?

RS: In the case of same-sex couples, the options are even more limited. Kitt Cherry is an author, poet and retired journalist in Los Angeles. She says that when she refers to her "partner," a lot of people think she means her business partner.

AA: They've tried saying "spouse." But that, she says, sounds too formal -- yet "partner" sound too neutral. And the problem isn't just here.

RS: Kitt Cherry has written about language in Japan. She checked back with one of her sources to see how the Japanese deal with this.

CHERRY: "And she said because it's so hard to find a word for a partner, out of the Japanese language, for same-sex couples or unmarried couples, that they borrowed the English word and just say it with a Japanese accent."

RS: "Part-ner."

CHERRY: "Part-na."

AA: Mizz Cherry's most recent book is called "Equal Rites," r-i-t-e-s. It's a collection of same-sex commitment ceremonies, the kind she herself used to lead as a minister.

CHERRY: "You know in the standard marriage ceremony they say 'I now pronounce you man and wife' or 'husband and wife.' And I thought I would let you know how we -- some other beautiful ways people said that for same-sex couples. 'I announce to you that they are life partners in the name of God beyond us, God within us and God between us.' Or here's another one: 'By the power of God's love, embodied in your covenant, you are joined one to another.'"

RS: One final point: The debate over same-sex marriage may end up an issue in next year's presidential election. Opponents are seeking a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and our Web site is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.