Polyamory language discussion: other significant others

Holly Pervocracy brought up a good question: what to call your lover’s other partners? (Only a good question for the non-monogamous, natch: monogamous people can stick with “That bitch/asshole.”) If you don’t have much of a relationship with them — maybe you’ve met once or twice, but you don’t count them among your friends — then the forum-inspired OSO, shorthand for “other significant other” is sufficient (although that one has snags too: is my boyfriend’s other girlfriend his OSO or my OSO?) But what about when you’re friends? When the three or four of you spend a lot of time together, or when you and the OSO get together without your mutual partner, just to hang out? When, even though you’re related neither by blood nor by direct romantic connection, that OSO becomes family?

A few terms have been suggested: “metamour,” a coinage about as clunk-ugly as “compersion.” The one Holly settled on was “sister wife/girlfriend,” which is sweet and expresses the family aspect, and has also had some media exposure, which means it will probably be the one that gets used in the long run. I don’t think it’s ideal for two reasons. First, it squicks out some people who don’t know whether you’re talking about incest or the normal, healthy bond a woman shares with the other woman who is fucking her lover. Second, it gets awkward when you try to change genders — I feel like a man is less likely to happily call another man his “brother boyfriend.” And what if you and the OSO are different genders? It works when you’re speaking relationally, (“I’m his sister wife, he’s my brother husband,”) but not when you’re speaking collectively (“We’re sibling spouses”?)

My favorite term, and it will shock the language prescriptivists, is “paramour.” I know, I know, it’s already a word and it means “lover.” But nobody actually uses it to mean “lover,” and there are plenty of other words for the purpose. Even if you’re dying to resurrect an archaic word for “lover,” there are plenty to choose from (“leman” is nice and gender-neutral, in sound and origin.) The original etymology, as revealed to me by a two-minute internet search, is the solidly Latinate par amour, but it’s more fun if we pretend it combines Greek and Latin roots, as “polyamory” itself does. Para-, beside, amour, love. Perfect, no? And because it is already a real word, it doesn’t have that clunky made-up feeling that has barred the entrance of countless words to the language. People are much quicker to re-appropriate an old word than accept a new one… dunno why, but there it is.

To language purists who are reeling and clutching their heads, I have two things to say: that Greek/Latin combo thing? It’s going to happen anyway. Future etymologists will look on our age as the time when people stopped caring whether a particular root came from Greek or Latin. And really, why should we? And as far as taking a word and co-opting it to another use, that happens all the time. I approve of it when we’re taking a word from a rich pool of synonyms and bestowing it on an unlabeled concept. I disapprove when we’re leaving one particular meaning bare of expression (“literally” and “figuratively” are opposites, people. If we let them become synonyms, we won’t have any way to express the meaning of “literally.”) So I guess when it comes to language, I’m neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist, but a utilitarian. Anyway, purists have already revoked my English-major license a while ago, so phoo on them.

Paramour. That’s my vote. Discuss.

5 thoughts on “Polyamory language discussion: other significant others

  1. I like paramour too. “My boyfriend’s paramour.” That works. But if you go with OSO, it’s “my OSO” if it’s your other relationship, it’s “my boyfriend’s OSO” if it’s his.


  2. The word metamour kinda found its way into my girlfriend’s vocabulary but she doesn’t use it often. I tend to refer to her partners as “my girlfriend’s girlfriend(s)” more often than not. Or “my girlfriend’s lover/sweetheart”. We have jokingly used the term “partner-in-law” to describe the relationship a person is to zir partner’s partner since I coopted the language of “-in-law” to describe my relationships with various people in my chosen family, due to the fact that my sibling relationships and thus my sibling-in-law relationships are not legally recognised so I wanted to reclaim the language of law to describe those relationships.


  3. In-law seconded. I say girlfriend-in-law for my partner’s girlfriend. But what’s my girlfriend’s husband? Husband-in-law? My mother used to say (of the blood-relatives of her long-term [unmarried] partner) “father-out-law” etc.


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