Remember the Great Unsolved Etiquette Problem? There has only been one, in all of Miss Manners' career, and she did think she could take the liberty, just in that one instance, of asking the rest of you to take the burden from her delicate hands.
Let us try again.
The problem was, and remains, what to call people who live together as couples but are not married to each other. Not being Miss Morals, Miss Manners wishes only to discuss the nomenclature in this arrangement. When it is socially necessary to inform the world that two people are to be treated as a couple, how does one say it?
The rules are:
1. No cute terms, overly descriptive of the private aspects of the relationship, are allowed.
Not only is that not the public's business, but the public, far from being consumed with erotic envy as the participants suppose, is revolted. A married person who regularly introduced a spouse by mentioning how much in love they are would find that society would kindly leave the two of them alone together at parties.
Besides, this shows a naivete' about the long-term household arrangement. Everyday life has its ups and downs, and there has to be a respectful but nonendearment term to describe the person who left wet towels on the bathroom floor and then forgot to stop for the groceries on the way home.
2. One should not take ordinary, useful words that apply to other relationships and spray sexual innuendo all over them.
"Friend" and "roommate" need to be kept free of romantic associations. Not only are they needed to describe the states of friendship and roommatehood, but they are extremely useful to romantic couples who do not wish to share confidences with the public. For heaven's sake, there is little enough ambiguity left in the world as it is.
3. Minted words are extremely hard to get into circulation and should not be overly contrived. POSSLQ, for "people of opposite sex sharing living quarters," is all very well, but does it have enough vowels in it?
There are diehards who still refuse to accept the extremely practical "Ms.," although it has no fewer vowels than "Mrs." and has been used in business at least since the 1930s, as several of Miss Manners' gentle readers have pointed out to her.
Very well now. Here are the current entries.
"A mother could proudly introduce the young man with whom her daughter has chosen to live, without embarrassing her daughter, the young man, the third person or herself, by saying, 'This is my daughter's sweetheart, Christopher Wrong.' Doesn't that seem appropriate for public daytime usage? To me, it conveys the thought that the couple are indeed committed and in love. The implication of sexuality can be left to a shared address."
"I have suggested the French word 'habitant,' meaning dweller, occupier or inmate of a house. After all, we got the word 'fiance'' from the French."
" 'Pliance' rhymes with 'fiance'' and has a certain classy ring to it. The word is derived from Persons Living In A Non-Committed Environment."
"When I was a young man, just after World War II, soldiers who lived with native women without marriage were said to be 'shacked up,' presumably because they moved into shacks instead of living in the regular barracks. I believe the phrase still has some popularity as a mildly disapproving way of describing what used to be called 'living in sin.' So I propose that such persons be called 'shackmates.' "
"I suggest 'sweetmates.' "
"In her Darkover novels, Marion Zimmer Bradley uses the term 'freemate,' and I think it quite adequate."
"My, uh, boyfriend and I had settled on 'partner' or 'social partner' (as opposed to business partner), but it is awkward enough that we have thus far avoided its use. Then he hit upon the solution: He is my 'hus' because the 'band' has been admittedly omitted."
"While wandering through Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition, I came across the word 'fere: n. 1. a companion; mate, 2. a husband or wife.' The word is pronounced 'fear.' Nonetheless it is appealing because, like 'spouse,' it is genderless; it is pure Middle English and etymologically derives from a phrase meaning 'to go together.' "
Miss Manners is resisting the temptation to stamp Objections 1, 2 or 3 on each of these. The problem has gone unsolved far too long, and she is weakened enough by it to be willing to accept anything that everybody else is prepared to go along with.
Q. Woe is me! Far too frequently, I am terribly embarrassed by having very audible gas. It surprises me with no warning, and I do hate it -- but what shall I do?
Fortunately there is no smell, but the sound is terrible. I do sincerely apologize and am quite mortified. Have you a better way to handle this wretched situation?
A. Woe are you, indeed. However, you do not have an etiquette problem. One says nothing on such occasions, because there is a sensible social conspiracy to deny that anything happened.
The danger of doing otherwise is illustrated in a story about Queen Elizabeth's apologizing, while reviewing troops on horseback with another chief of state, for her horse's having made such a noise. Allegedly, her host brushed off the apology, adding graciously that had she not mentioned it, he would have thought it was the horse.
Miss Manners does not vouch for the veracity of this story. (It appears in "The Book of Royal Lists" by Craig Brown and Lesley Cunliffe.) But she does vouch for the etiquette point it makes.