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At the Supreme Court this week, one justice pointed out that legal same-sex marriage is newer than cell phones or the Internet. So that means the language we use to describe these relationships is also new. For years, people have struggled for the right words to describe same-sex couples and the verbal tap dance continues today.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In 1982, advice Dear Abby published a letter from someone who'd just moved from a conservative Midwestern town to bohemian Portland, Oregon. Suddenly, the advice-seeker was interacting with gay couples and wanted to know: Should a letter be addressed to Mr. John Doe and Friend? Is it proper to say, This is so-and-so and his lover?
The writer went on: Would it be proper to introduce a gay couple as Mr. Jones and his live-in friend, companion or partner? Abby advised the writer to ignore labels, but 30 years later, straight and gay people are still struggling with the same questions. Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com.
BEN ZIMMER: Each of these terms has its own problems. So, for instance, partner sounds very official or contractual; companion sounds unromantic or even euphemistic; lover might just be too explicit; boyfriend and girlfriend are inappropriate for a lot of people unless they're a teenager.
SHAPIRO: When the love that dare not speak its name finally opens its mouth, people can get tripped up on the words. Winnie Stachelberg is at the Liberal Center for American Progress. She's been with the same woman for 25 years and often uses the word spouse because she says it describes a relationship people understand.
WINNIE STACHELBERG: Friends of mine introduce themselves to a senator as partners, and the senator immediately thought that they were business partners and made a comment, and then they had to quickly correct him. I remember that quite vividly.
SHAPIRO: Now that some states allow gay people to marry, the words husband and wife are part of the lexicon. The terms are unambiguous, but their usage is novel and that sometimes catches people off guard. Steve Kleinedler is executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. He married his husband in 2004 and suddenly lost him in a fatal accident five years later.
STEVE KLEINEDLER: The funeral director, very innocently and not meaning to offend at all - she was an older woman. She was extremely helpful but she was stymied by the form. She turned to me and says: Well, which one of you is the wife? And you know, I kindly explained: No, we're both husbands.
SHAPIRO: A few months earlier, Kleinedler had updated the definitions of marriage, husband and widow to be gender neutral. When the new edition of the dictionary came out, Kleindler saw himself in those words. Today, people may be taken aback when a man mentions his husband or a woman introduces her wife, but retired congressman Barney Frank, who married his husband last year, believes the words will sound normal in no time.
BARNEY FRANK: You know, maybe because I was in politics I've stayed in touch with a lot of younger people, but even among people my own age, I have not found that very widespread. The whole point of this is that we are not subject to the same gender roles. And by the way, these days, even wives aren't wives in that sense.
SHAPIRO: The Associated Press uses a manual called the "AP Stylebook" to spell out its rules and standards. Many news organizations, including NPR, turn to the stylebook for guidance. Just last month, under pressure from outside groups, AP added a stylebook entry to say married same-sex couples should be called husbands or wives. David Minthorn is one of the stylebook's editors.
DAVID MINTHORN: Married couples are married couples, and so it's a natural progression. Same-sex marriage is much more frequent now than even 10 years ago, and we have to take account of this.
SHAPIRO: The "AP Stylebook" also has an entry for widow and widower. Minthorn looked it up while he was on the phone with me.
MINTHORN: Let me see. I think we - yeah. Our stylebook definition of widow and widower: In obituaries a man is survived by his wife or leaves his wife. A woman is survived by her husband or leaves her husband. So we may have to update that somewhat too, to account for same-sex, right?
SHAPIRO: More evidence that the only constant in life is change. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.