"Boyfriend," "Girlfriend," and "Significant Other" Are Terrible Phrases

Girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, lover, significant other. We really don't have any good way to refer to unmarried romantic partners (see?) in English.

This is a cry for help.


Girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, lover, significant other. We really don't have any good way to refer to unmarried romantic partners (see?) in English.

But first, let me explain why I think the status quo leaves us in such dire verbal straits:

"Boyfriend" and "Girlfriend" are terrible terms, for a few reasons. Firstly, by simply combining a gender and "friend" they imply that romance is simply friendship with one's opposite gender. Which is isn't.

Girlfriend is especially fraught, since lots of women make a point of casually applying it to their non-romantic female friends.

Both "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" also make it needlessly difficult to describe an opposite-gender friend with whom you are not romantically involved. I have resorted to "female friend" which makes it sound like some novelty, and I have also resorted to "girl space friend," which solves the issue, but really very awkwardly.

As many gay couples know, "partner" is equally problematic, since it sounds like a business relationship, and is indistinguishable from the same during introductions.

Lover is at once too emotionally mushy and too explicitly sexual. Here I'll quote Catch-22 author Joseph Heller making this point rather lewdly and with characteristic comedy: "I used the word [lover] only once in a book, when the character Gold is reacting the way I am and the woman says, 'You are my lover.' He never though of himself as a lover. he says he always thought of himself as a fucker, not a lover."

That about says it all.

Lastly, "significant other" is especially terrible. Where to start? It suggests that, for anyone, there is only one significant other, and that a necessary condition for significance is romance. Anyway, what a lot of people value so much about romance is that it does away with the very feeling of other-ness. But worst of all, it's just extremely cold and humorless.

This shouldn't be so hard! Fiance, spouse, husband, and wife all work perfectly.

So what do we do? The french have "petit ami" (little friend) for boyfriend, which is at least funny.

I'm out of ideas. If anyone else (an "insignificant other"?) shares my aversion to the syntactically and verbally awkward words we use for the people we love, please suggest some alternatives.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.