“If I was* your boyfriend, never let you go
Keep you on my arm girl, you’d never be alone
I can be a gentleman, anything you want
If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, I’d never let you go”
— Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend” chorus
Although I’m not so sure he’ll ever become a gentleman, as he promises he can, Justin will be able to sing his refrain well into his dotage (assuming he still has the voice and the life to do so). And that’s because he can be your boyfriend at any age — whether he’s 16 or 106. Why is it that we ladies (or indeed gents) of a certain age still have so-called “boyfriends” and not “manfriends” or more age-appropriately-named suitors?
In an earlier post, Glossophilia looked at the linguistically ambiguous time of the proverbial ball-drop when male people can no longer be called boys but they’re not quite man enough to be known as men. We’ve overcome this grey area of male nomenclature by inventing slang words to cover this period of pubescent growth and transition — words that can conveniently describe the male specimen at any stage of his development: dude, chap, bloke, guy. But somehow the word boyfriend** — which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, dates back to 1909 with its meaning “woman’s paramour” — is like Peter Pan or Dorian Gray: it never grows up. It always seems to work, however old the boy paramour or his lady-love happens to be. Perhaps in the role of boyfriend, a man will always be a boy.
Here are some other words that have been used both formally and colloquially to describe “a girl’s or woman’s, or a homosexual man’s, usual or preferred male companion” (OED‘s definition of boyfriend) over the years and centuries.
beau: meaning “attendant suitor of a lady” from 1720 (Online Etymology Dictionary), from the French word beau meaning “the beautiful”
steady: meaning “one’s boyfriend or girlfriend” dates from 1792, according to Merriam-Webster
young man: a euphemism from the early 20th century, as in the 1945 movie My Name is Julia Ross, in which the heroine confirms her unattached status at a job interview by insisting that she has “no young man”
significant other: dates from 1953 (Merriam-Webster)
Mister (slang, although usually for husband rather than boyfriend)
better half (slang): According to PhraseFinder, “this term wasn’t originally restricted to referring to one’s spouse as we use it now, but to a dear friend. It was used that way by the Roman poet Horace and later by Statius. The allusion then was to a friend so dear that he/she was more than half of a person’s being. That meaning persists, although these days, if the term is used seriously rather than sarcastically, it is generally considered to mean ‘the superior half of a married couple’. That is, better in quality rather than in quantity. Sir Philip Sidney was the first to put into print the use of this phrase to mean spouse, in The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, 1580:
“My deare, my better halfe (sayd hee) I find I must now leaue thee.”
partner: can be confused with a business or sports partner; sometimes clarified, more formally or legally, as domestic partner
boo: U.S. slang derived from beau (see above)
umbrella: Cockney rhyming slang — rhymes with fella
bf: used in popular culture, slang, internet chat, and cellphone texting
other half (informal): From Aristophanes’ speech of Plato’s Symposium: “Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three; and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round because they resembled their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, attempted to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts [?] …. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: ‘Methinks I have a plan which will enfeeble their strength and so extinguish their turbulence; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers. … He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson of humility…. After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they began to die from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,–being the sections of entire men or women,–and clung to that.”
* shouldn’t it be “if I WERE your boyfriend”?
** curiously, it’s acceptable to continue calling women girls long past the age that boys usually turn into men, so girlfriend is less of an anomaly.
For Story, my ageless umbrella.