Guest blogger: The language of civil partnership

By Jemima Kingsley

Are you in a long-term romantic relationship? Is she your wife, your girlfriend, or your better half? Is he your partner, him indoors, your significant other, or your spouse? Are you married? How much of the way you define your relationship is determined by your legal status? How much is it defined by the language you use?
In December the potential vocabulary (and legal status) available to gay and lesbian couples in the UK will change with the introduction of civil partnership. The new law allows lesbians and gay men, in all but name, to marry. And it’s the all but name bit which leads me to wonder how important the language of marriage is.
As an example, was it news to you that civil partnership carries the same rights and legal implications as marriage? It is to most people I tell. It’s clear to me that civil partnership has been named in order to avoid the religious implications of marriage (one of the few differences between civil partnership and marriage is that civil partnership ceremonies cannot be held in religious venues), but this use of language has also made it hard to communicate the legitimacy of the partnerships. The shorthand of marriage is lost in the new language and, until the reality of civil partnership becomes established, I think it unlikely that anyone will take it nearly as seriously as they take marriage. So, what to do?
"I’m getting married!"
As a simple solution it would be possible for gay and lesbian couples to ignore the legal terms and just adopt the language of marriage for their civil partnerships. The shorthand is convenient. Invitations could go out inviting friends to their marriage, they could have a wedding day, the fathers of the brides could give away their daughters. She could be a wife. She could have a wife. And of course some gay people already use ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ to describe the commitment of their relationship, and have made headway in gaining acceptance by using language that people recognise.
It seems to me, though, that the language of marriage suggests the traditions of marriage, in particular when it comes to the ceremony of the wedding, with its implied gender types and religious elements, which sit uncomfortably with the reality of homosexual relationships. Of course, if the law had called civil partnership marriage, that would offer the opportunity for gay men and lesbians to participate in redefining marriage for the community as a whole. But this is exactly what the law tries to avoid by its use of language and we have to accept that the religious associations with marriage make it a complicated concept to play with. Given this, I see no virtue in using language lesbians and gay men can’t own, and annoying and distressing people in the process.
"Sorry Mum, sorry Dad, I’m not getting married. I am, however, getting Civilly Partnered!"
The language of civil partnership, however, is horribly formal and brings to mind all the legal associations and none of the emotional ones. It makes me think of inheritance tax and housing rights (yes, important), but not of two people spending a future together through thick and thin, come what may. Again, this is deliberate, but it’s also an opportunity. No one yet knows what civil partnerships look like or how they work. No one yet has a set way of going about the partnership. With a little imagination, the next few years could be really exciting in terms of defining relationships and partnerships outside the traditions of how marriage is meant to work. And I don’t mean a radical redefinition of the relationship itself (I don’t think people will suddenly stop wanting to live together and keep cats), but I do mean a rethink about what’s important when you make a commitment to another person. Who should be at the ceremony, where should it be, what should be said, and how can that best be done? And how does that commitment make a difference to the way you are perceived by your friends and relatives and by society as a whole? It’s a real opportunity, and one that many heterosexual people would doubtless jump at.
Great as this may be, it still leaves us with some complications around language. Once you’ve been through the ceremony, how do you refer to your civil partner? You could refer to them as your civil partner, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue or have anything like the ease of husband or wife. Or you could use husband or wife, but why borrow this inaccurate language when you have a legal relationship that is as valid as marriage? You could use spouse, which I quite like despite its formal sound (the legal implications are even helpful, I think). And you could say partner with absolute legitimacy. Partner might be ideal, in fact, if only there were some way to differentiate you, with your legal status, from the current ambiguous range of ways in which partner is used – business partner, opposite sex boyfriend or girlfriend, and same sex boyfriend or girlfriend. There’s no doubt meanings can change, so it’s possible that partner will shift to be associated with civil partnerships, in the same way that ‘gay’ is hardly ever used to mean glad anymore. Given time, in fact, ‘civil partnership’ could even come to mean something romantic, exciting and long term, in the same way that marriage does.
However it plays out, the language is bound to shift with the new legal opportunities. Gay men and lesbians entering into civil partnerships will either seriously redefine the meaning of existing terms (marriage, wife, etc.) or will add new meaning to a range of terms currently either overly-legalistic (civil partnership, spouse) or ambiguous (partner).
So, I’m curious. Which would you and your partner/husband/wife prefer? Either way, now is the time to make it happen.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:44+00:00 October 28th, 2005|Culture, Guests|10 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. céline October 29, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    I agree with you that the name chosen for this new institution is crucial in determining how it will develop and be viewed. In France, the civil partnership is called Pacte de Solidarité Sociale, or PACS, which has led to the development of a new vocabulary: “se pacser” is now a widely used verb, for example, and it seems that “mon pacsé” is now used as you would “my husband”. As a result, the PACS is seen as definitely separate from marriage, but then it was designed to be different from marriage anyway: it is much easier to dissolve than a marriage, and it gives no or limited rights in terms of adoption, inheritance etc.
    So I think that it was rather hypocritical to call “civil partnership” an institution that is so close to marriage, but then it was probably to avoid antagonising the section of the population (which is not negligeable, politically speaking) which thinks that giving gay people the same rights as straight people is a threat to society.

  2. Tony October 29, 2005 at 7:07 pm

    What an admirable essay; thank you!

  3. Nic November 1, 2005 at 10:13 am

    As usual, in Italy we are lagging behing France, the UK and many European countries. Over the last few months there has been a heated debate about PACS (the concept and the word, which is used both in the singular and in the plural). My impression is that we borrowed the acronym from French and interpreted it as Patto Civile di Solidarietà. It will be some tme before the PACS become a cultural and lexical fact here.

  4. céline November 1, 2005 at 10:19 am

    I find it really interesting that Italy borrowed the “word” PACS! Why is that? Has French culture generally got a big influence in Italy, the same way English words are readily assimilated into French because of the US (and the UK)’s huge cultural influence?

  5. Marieke November 1, 2005 at 2:10 pm

    As a lesbian, I am always suspect of people when they refer to their loved one as ‘my partner’. I use that word when I do not want to reveal my sexuality in a conversation (unfortunately there are many such occassions where I just want to avoid the fuss by leaving it up to the listener. At least I don’t have to lie that way.)
    So when people say ‘my partner’ my gaydar goes into overdrive.
    I don’t like calling my partner ‘my wife’, even if we were married. It just sounds like I own her in some way. In Dutch, I would use the word ‘vriendin’ (the female form of friend) without problems. But in English, to indicate that I am talking about a WOMAN, the only option I have is to use the word GIRLfriend. And that makes me feel like I am a teenager who has a first girl, not a grown woman in a long-term relationship with another grown woman.
    So in Dutch, I would be able to find a happy alternative for ‘my wife’ that allows me, if I use it in the correct context, to indicate she is more than just a friend but that she is my ‘love-friend’. But in English, I have not yet managed to find a word that does that for me.

  6. céline November 1, 2005 at 2:24 pm

    I think that’s the point that interests me most in Jemima’s post: the fact that this institution, by not being called “marriage”, has the potential of creating a whole new reality, with new words, or existing words taking on a new meaning, for couples who don’t recognise themselves in marriage in its traditional sense, with all the man-owning-woman connotations you mention.
    I also think “partner” might be on the way to mean “same-sex lover”; I went to a comedy night a couple of weeks ago, and the stand-up on stage (Jo Caulfield, who was fantastic) was complaining about the fact that there is no adequate word to describe her not-husband: “I can’t say “significant other”, because I’m not a wanker, and I can’t say “partner”, because I’m not a lesbian.” That surprised me, but maybe with the arrival of the civil partnership, “partner” will indeed become more strongly associated with gay relationships.

  7. Jemima November 2, 2005 at 10:13 am

    I love Jo Caulfield’s assessment of the term ‘significant other’.
    And I agree with everything Marieke says. I often resort to just using my partner’s name instead of defining the relationship. It’s risky, because if people don’t want to know they insist on refering to her as my ‘friend’. (In fact, I’ve heard the term ‘special friend’, which just makes me want to say ‘we do have sex, you know?’.) But in the main I like saying things like ‘Sarah thinks such and such’, or ‘Sarah and I saw a film’, as it maintains the idea of two individuals without suggesting that one has some sort of ownership of the other. If someone continues to ignore the fact, partner doesn’t work either as that’s a word that people can choose to misunderstand, so I sometimes resort to girlfriend for it’s lack of ambiguity (despite making me feel like I should be 16).
    The other element that will be interesting with the Civil Partnership will be how you refer to the status that you have. You can’t say you’re married. But you could say you’re in a civil partnership. Again, I like this because it’s something that you do, but it’s not your whole identity. But perhaps this is just revealing about my hang-ups about marriage 🙂

  8. nic November 7, 2005 at 1:54 pm

    As I said, it is my impression that we borrowed the word from French but I don’t have any “philogical” evidence for that and the word is much too new to have entered any etymological dictionary. However, every time we discuss (o I should say argue) about PACS in Italy we always refer to the French law. As for the cultural influence, well, the Italian dictionary De Mauro (abridged) lists 849 French words that are part of the Italian lexicon and 2431 English words. The French words are not very common and and I’ve never used most of them (except abat-jour, aplomb, baguette and a few others), while I know most of the English words: I couldn’t do without abstract, ace, benefit, gag, and rock of course.

  9. Marieke November 7, 2005 at 1:55 pm

    I like marriage. Marriage is indeed seen as something you do out of love. A civil partnership is something you do for legal reasons. That’s how it feels to me. In The Netherlands, they created Civil Partnership which became known as The Gay Marriage. That was nice as it felt like it was at least seen as a marriage, something you do out of love. It was open to straight people but they never used it. And after a few years when they realised civilisation was not going to hell after giving gays legal rights, they simply decided to ‘open’ normal marriage to gays and lesbians. That bill got through parliament without much opposition. So now, saying that I am getting married means exactly the same as when my sister says it. So I could call Jane my wife. If I get married in The Netherlands and then come back to the UK, our mariage will be legally recognized as a Civil partnership and we will get the same benefits as I would in a British Civil Partnership, not marriage. So in The Netherlands, Jane is my wife and in the UK she is my Civil Partner….. So I think I will end up sticking with partner….

  10. Henriko November 22, 2005 at 5:01 am

    Hello! Thaks from me to you job this is site! Sorry for my poor english:(

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