I am good at learning definitions. I enjoy words. I have written English papers that hinged on the analysis of an Oxford English Dictionary entry. I was in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee when I was 14, preparing for which involved, among other things, reading the dictionary. At the Bee, I listened to hundreds of words, defined by the pronouncers, imbuing arcane and unusual arrangements of letters with some equally arcane meanings. I loved it. So yes, I am good with definitions.
Some ubiquitous words, like sketchy and awkward, mean a lot but say little. The standard definitions don’t encompass their vague yet sweeping space in the cultural lexicon. And I have read enough dissections of hook-up culture to know that some definitions — especially of what constitutes dating or hooking up — have broken down even further. One of my closest friends had sex with the same guy for almost a year, but they were never officially “together,” so when she called it quits, she couldn’t even call him her ex. After all, he had never been her boyfriend.
Somehow, the absence of words to describe what had happened between them made the break harder — if not for her, then for us, her friends. How do you comfort a woman who has ended a relationship with someone who was more than a friend but less than a boyfriend? The platitudes are the same, but the situation to which they are applied is amorphous, slippery, hard to analyze and categorize.
A boyfriend by any other name is not, apparently, a boyfriend, but it’s unclear to me when and how exactly we lost the surety of our definitions. Or for that matter, whether we had any in the first place. Aside from prenuptial agreements and arranged marriages, there seems to be nothing less certain than relationships.
In our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, they had many words to describe the same sorts of things: going steady, dating, courting, going together, seeing each other, main squeeze, best girl, lover, significant other. Hooking up dominates our current language for love, but it’s just a different way of describing something people have been doing forever.
Obviously, defining our relationships means something to us, if we dwell on it. We do genuinely want to know if we can call someone a boyfriend rather than “that guy in Berkeley I’ve been hooking up with and have a crush on.” It’s shorter at any rate.
Many, however, don’t ask for definitions. Alice contends that women don’t ask because they never learned how. But maybe we don’t ask because we’re afraid of the answer. Maybe it’s not worth ruining an amorphous relationship with “that guy in Berkeley” by trying to define it.
There is a part of recognizing someone else as an independent person worthy of admiration, interest or even love that makes him or her impossible to possess or completely understand. And relationships, like people, are impossible to truly define, something that dismays word nerds like me. Even if we completely understand what boyfriend means — a man who will respect you, laugh with you, sleep with you on a regular and committed basis? — there will always be uncertainty built into the relationship. It is, annoyingly, a fault of human nature.
My latest boyfriend and I agonized over whether we were actually “together” for about a month, a topic that was the subject of repeated frustrating (often drunken) discussions. Reasons for and against were presented and debated. When we finally decided we could be official — though not Facebook-official — we also discovered that it didn’t matter that much. We were the same old people, newly labeled but not defined.
Even if no dramatic shift occurs with definition, it gives your relationship a language. And having the right words gives rise to emotional self-preservation. If your boyfriend sleeps with someone else, you know what to call it: cheating. It’s an ugly word, but an accurate one. If someone you have been sleeping with on a regular basis does the same thing, he has at least one way to exonerate himself and evade responsibility: “We were never together anyway.” With the right words comes the ability to understand, to recover or to fight back.
Elisa Gonzalez is a junior in Pierson College.