Last week, in a notice mainly read by sports fans with too much time, the untimely death of baseball umpire Wally Bell was announced (http://sports.yahoo.com/news/mlb-umpire-wally-bell-dead-015336518--mlb.html). As I read the complete article, including an official statement from the Major League Baseball Executive Vice-President, I was struck by the difficulty language and custom is having coping with the social change and how this confusion expressed itself in the condolences for this umpire.
First, in many Western societies, divorce rates range from 30-50%, meaning that there are many people that are not married to their first spouse. Some of them do remarry, but others, for multiple reasons, don’t formally marry again, even if they have a new partner. This is not a new phenomenon, but society is still confused about protocol.
In the case in hand, the Commissioner expressed his condolences to the family, an ambiguous word implying everybody, no matter the relationship. By contrast, Joe Torre, the Vice President of the League, specifically mentioned “his girlfriend,” implying, at least to me, that is was a long-term relationship. The choice of the word girlfriend is already a bit contrived since, if he was 48 years old, I imagine she is clearly no longer 16 years old. Still, no good English word exists for partners that have passed the change of being girls and boys. I think that the French copin/copine and Hebrew חבר\חברה (Haver / havera( based on the word meaning friend, sound better to me. The article ended by completely ignoring the poor woman by saying that he was survived by his two children. That comment sounded rather shrill to me. If you hadn’t paid attention to the previous quotes in that article, you would have thought he was dreadfully alone in life.
The three approaches in the article reflect the ways society has dealt with non-traditional family structure. You can be ambiguous, i.e. family; you can be specific but forced to use inappropriate language, i.e. girl and boy friend. Finally, one can simply ignore the reality and pretend that nothing has changed – no marriage, no status. I hope somebody finds a nice catchy term in English to describe adult, non-married, relationships and soon as an ever growing number of people are coupled but not wedded.