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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

significant other

(1990’s | therapese | “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” etc.)

It just got harder and harder to find an existing word that satisfied everyone, and along came “significant other,” which I believe has joined the ranks of standard English (others may disagree). What constitutes a sufficiently general term for “the person I’m with now”? All the old words were either too specific (“spouse”) or not specific enough (“friend”). Or they had some other problem: “lover” was embarrassing in mixed company and maybe a bit archaic, too; “boy/girlfriend” sounded like teenagers; “squeeze” was even worse. So even a vague, clumsy phrase had a pretty good chance, and it seems to remain the standard, neutral term, although “partner” has been making inroads more recently and may ultimately push it aside.

A literate person who kept up with current events had to be familiar with this phrase by the late 1980’s, but it didn’t become really prominent until the 1990’s. In its earliest appearances, it sometimes had a wider use, referring to any important person in one’s life, including relatives or a boss or pastor. But by 1990 or so its meaning had narrowed to “the person one is in a relationship with.”


(1980’s | businese | “violating convention or decorum”)

I won’t pretend that this word wasn’t around during the 1970’s; it certainly was. But it became much more common in the 1980’s, and in so doing, it changed.

For one thing, the word lost force as it became more widespread; “unprofessional conduct” was a more serious business in the old days, and it often had the force of “malpractice” or “inexcusable negligence.” But the underlying reason for that was that the concept hadn’t yet lost a key association: the simple notion that in order to act unprofessionally, you had to be a member of a profession, like a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer. The assumption was that professions had their own canons of ethics and ways of deciding formally who had violated them. In this sense, the concept goes back as far as medieval labor guilds, or Hippocrates.

But now, “unprofessional” applies to any old violation of civility in the workplace. Almost anything one worker might do that offends another worker, or a customer, would qualify. It’s certainly a handy word when you’re mad at a customer service person, but that’s the point. You don’t have to belong to a profession (in the old sense of “occupation requiring advanced education, specialized training, and a license”) any more to behave unprofessionally. Anyone can do it, even a bicycle messenger. And who knows? Maybe some day “unprofessional” will become a noun. (“I’m a professional. You’re an unprofessional.”) Hard to imagine, I’ll admit, but don’t rule it out.

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