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Monday, March 10, 2003
CAN WE RETIRE THE TERM "FIANCEE"?
I am not one to say that certain words are taboo. I certainly have no problem with profanity (though I really don't use it all that much myself), and I am generally a civil libertarian who harbors some suspicions about such things as trademark and copyright laws, because they have the effect of withdrawing words and phrases from the language. But there is one word I cannot stand. That word is "fiancee". Every time I see it used, I hit the roof.
Why? For several reasons. First, and probably most importantly, the word is used almost exclusively by women to describe their boyfriends. I do not believe that I have ever heard a male call his girlfriend his "fiancee". This despite the fact that the word itself comes from French and is feminine, i.e., it actually means a woman engaged to be married. I am not a prescriptivist with respect to language usage, so it really doesn't bother me when the meaning of the word has changed; rather, what I am getting to is that the modern usage of "fiancee" has more to do with gender and sexual politics than it does with historical usage.
And the gender politics are fairly obvious. In its current usage, a fiancee is someone engaged to be married. The fact that two people are engaged, of course, is really not a relevant identificatory characteristic; engaged couples are not afforded any different benefits or social standing than any other unmarried couples. Further, the concept of "engagement" itself has stretched. Many people call themselves "engaged" nowadays even though no wedding date has been set; indeed, some people accept a proposal, call themselves engaged, and then wait years to be married. So why do women (and almost exclusively women) rush to use the term "fiancee"? I would surmise that this is a vestige of outdated sexual morality. Women (and exclusively women) were expected in the past to remain virgins until they were married. Women who engaged in premarital sex were considered unchaste whores. Thankfully, these moral beliefs have gone by the wayside. But the term "financee" represents such beliefs sneaking back into the discourse. Why is it so important to a woman to announce that she intends to marry her male companion, even if no date has been set and there is a more than trivial likelihood that the marriage may not ever occur? There's only one answer; because it represents a moral rationalization. "Oh, that's OK, I can have sex with him because we are going to get married." It is pure 1950's morality, of the half-assed kind that was used to justify backseat assignations at the drive-in movie.
I don't particularly care whether people intend to get married. (Really, I don't even care whether they are married.) There's no reason for the use of the term, and I don't have a higher moral opinion of someone who is sleeping with a person she calls her "financee" over somone who is sleeping with her "boyfriend", or even someone having (horror of horrors) "casual sex". Indeed, my moral preferences probably favor the latter two groups, because they are being more honest about what they are doing. So there's no reason to tell me that this person who you are sleeping with is your "fiancee".
Further, when used where the couple hasn't set a date, the term has lost all meaning. The number of people who have said at one time or another that they planned to marry someone exceeds the number of people who actually got married by a large factor. If all those people were to call their significant others "fiancees", the term no longer refers to someone who is actually marrying, but rather just means a very committed boyfriend. And there's no reason to use a separate term for that; it is possible to be just as committed to someone without pretending that you are going to get married and you just haven't set the date or reserved the chapel or hired the caterer or engaged the minister or sent out the invitations or purchased the ring or taken any other concrete steps towards an actual marriage.
So let's just get rid of "fiancee" altogether, or, if we must use the word, reserve it for couples who are actually actively preparing their wedding for a set date in the very near future (maybe 2 months would be a good cut-off). And let's all be honest with ourselves: the 50's are over, and there's no reason why a woman in 2003 has to manufacture any pretenses as to why she is sleeping with a guy she is not married to. It feels good to do it, and that's sufficient.
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