Wednesday, August 8, 2007

When "single" no longer means single

One of the topics which fascinates me, and on which I no doubt will be writing from time to time, is what the way people use words signifies about their underlying thoughts. Some people don't agree that it signifies much. When I was a freshman in college, I attended the introductory meeting for those interested in writing for the student newspaper. At some point, the discussion turned to ideas for op-ed or opinion pieces, and one of my fellow freshmen volunteered that he was interested in writing an opinion piece protesting the administration's attempt to replace the word "freshman" with the gender-neutral "first year student." The editor-in-chief said that he was not a fan of that effort, since he believed you can't change what people think by changing the words they use. Now, he was obviously on the liberal side of the issue, since he implicitly admitted that he was in favor of changing the way people think, but that is another discussion. The important point here is that he was wrong. If people change the words they use based on what they think, why shouldn't an imposed change in vocabulary effect changes in thought? George Orwell wrote a book about a fictional attempt to do just that.

I had an interesting experience a few days ago, which brought home how significant a shift in the usage of a seemingly innocuous word can be--and how far outside the mainstream my traditional views are. I was with a group of several other first-year students and one second-year student, all male, and the second-year requested the straight dope on the appeal of the females in our class. (For those who don't know, the medical school population in the USA is now nearly 50% female, a topic which I intend to address in later entries.)

The consensus view emerging from my classmates--I kept silent, as I usually do in conversations like this--was that there are a few attractive women in our class, but they are few and far between, and furthermore, that almost all of them have boyfriends. So far, nothing surprising in the slightest. Then one man quipped that you could identify three desirable traits in women: cute, single, and nice, and you could choose two of the three. (I don't remember whether the third trait was actually "nice," but if not, it was unimportant.) And as the conversation progressed along those lines, I realized something. The word "single," in this context, has always simply meant not married. Fellow conservative Christians, no matter how culturally non-traditionalistic they may be, know what I'm talking about. If you are not legally married, you are single. It doesn't matter if you've been dating your boyfriend for two years and are about to go ring shopping tomorrow; the word "single" refers to nothing more than the absence of a marriage license.

Yet that was not what it meant to these young products of the 21st century world. To them, it meant without a boyfriend or girlfriend. A single girl is one who is not even dating; a girl who has a boyfriend is... what? I don't know what they would call it. Taken? Attached? Whatever it is, it seems to have become a semi-official state, drifting inchoate somewhere between being completely romantically uninvolved and being married.

As I've aged, this common concept we use the words "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" to describe has slowly bothered me more and more. This is because there is no "official" basis for it. I'm not saying it should be done away with: I have participated in it myself, and obviously some kind of steady dating relationship is necessary before a couple progresses to engagement. What I am saying is that if you are married, you have participated in a rite which your surrounding society believes in: you have taken vows before witnesses, and declared yourselves to be attached to each other in an official legal relationship which has real, formal implications (inheritance; official sanctions on consorting with others, though these have fallen by the wayside in our debauched society; the assumption of parenting roles, etc.) In a traditional society, marriage is something the society as a whole believes in, and everyone knows what is meant by it. But in our society, where expressive individualism reigns, what is important is not what society thinks of your relationship, but what you think of it. And society's views must change to fit your needs and desires. If you say that you have a "boyfriend," that you are "taken" or "attached," who am I to say otherwise?

It occurred to me that the students using the word "single" this way didn't think there was anything remarkable about their usage. When they are asked to fill out a form which requests their marital status, are they surprised that it seems to consider "single" the opposite of "married?" I wonder, are we reaching the point where we need a compound term to describe someone's marital state; for example "unmarried and single" vs. "unmarried but taken?"

But the most troubling thing about this development in the usage of "single" is that not only does it replace the society-defined relationship with the couple-defined one, it elevates "dating" to the level of marriage. For all intents and purposes in our society, except among conservative Christians (and, I imagine, orthodox Jews), the belief that there is anything wrong or even remarkable about cohabitation before marriage is at present dead. The usual way of looking at this situation is to say that since people have abandoned traditional moral strictures, there is no reason not to live together before marriage: it's convenient, it's fun, and it gives people a chance to "test drive" marriage. But an oblique, and in my opinion more ominous, view is that, given the emphasis on individual expression and self-realization in the modern world, people have replaced the traditional, society-defined institution of marriage and its accompanying externally imposed strictures, with the self- (or couple-) defined institution of... well it doesn't have a name yet. But in a way, that's the point. Perhaps it if had a name, it would be too formal, too official, too externally imposed.

Now, when people recognize as legitimate these informal, self-defined relationships, as my fellow students and their peers certainly do, that takes away a certain amount of the impetus to get married. Part of the reason people used to get married was to have their relationships not merely legally recognized but socially taken seriously. Now that the opposite of "single" is not "married" but "dating," dating is taken as seriously as marriage. And when a person uses the word "single" in that sense, he reinforces that view--and when there is a trend of people doing this collectively, across the country, it is yet another of the many forces chipping away at the foundation of marriage in our society.

So there you have it. Words matter. They influence the way people think. What can one man do about it? Perhaps not much, but at least he can resist. If one of my classmates asks me if I am single, I will say yes, I am unmarried. And if, by the grace of God, I manage to convince a woman to start dating me, if one of them refers to me as no longer single, I will correct him.


mshaw said...

I have never looked at this from that point of view, thanks for that.

Rick Darby said...


We certainly need terms to replace "boyfriend" and "girlfriend," which sound ridiculous if the people involved are over 25.

You often nowadays hear someone called a "partner," meaning living-together-without-marriage. Regardless of whether you accept such an arrangement, it's an awful description — businesslike and cold.

But it's almost impossible to change the language by willpower, even if lots of people want a new usage. For one thing, they usually don't agree on the new word to replace the old that they all agree doesn't fit. And new words seem to get adopted by some mysterious alchemy that no one can explain, and no one can force.

Hermes said...

Good points, Rick. I didn't mean to suggest that we could change the language, and thus the underlying ideas, through some grassroots effort. You're right that changes in language seem to happen organically, without necessarily any concerted effort. I do think it's important, though, to resist the deprecation of older terms as much as possible, because their wholesale replacement by newer ones can render traditional modes of thought impossible. That's what the fictional government in 1984 did by creating Newspeak, and what Allan Bloom commented on when he wrote in The Closing of the American Mind: "When bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. It was henceforward inevitable that the modern archbishops of Canterbury would have no more in common with the ancient ones than does the second Elizabeth with the first."

"Partner" is an egregious example of this, being used increasingly in part to deny any difference between opposite-sex and same-sex "relationships." I recently attended a cousin's wedding where one of the scripture readings included Genesis 2:18, which anyone familiar with the Bible should know says that God made woman as a "helper" for man. Despite this being a Catholic wedding, the translation they read used the word "partner" in place of "helper." This kind of thing is obviously being done intentionally to eradicate traditional gender roles.