better half

Better Halves

All loving relationships have a trajectory each stage of which comes with a rich vocabulary referring to the participants and to the stage of the relationship itself. That this vocabulary is both extensive and often ambiguous is perhaps not surprising, given the fluidity of such relationships and the scrutiny and speculation to which we can’t help but subject them, whether the principals be our nearest and dearest or Kate and Wills.

Popular culture provides the basic template, sometimes adding, omitting, or reordering the essential components. For example, in their 1958 hit “The Book of Love,” the Monotones offer the following scenario: Chapter One profess your love for her; Chapter Two proclaim that you will never (never never never never) part; Chapter Three “remember the meaning of Romance;” and in the fourth and final chapter, break up but “give her just one more chance.” The writers abandon the narrative at this point, tacitly acknowledging that once it has become clear to “her” that we’re talking about lust rather than love, the relationship is probably doomed (the sentiments expressed by the Shirelles in “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” notwithstanding).

Perhaps a better model is the playground taunt that might have been directed at the Royals had they met as children:

Kate and Wills sitting in a tree
First comes love, then comes marriage,
Then comes Kate with a baby carriage.

We may assume that “First comes love” is a gloss on kissing rather than that lust precedes love, the precursor to marriage and subsequent parenthood—these words are from the mouths of babes, after all. (Interestingly, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the evolution of the expression “to hook up” has gone in the precisely opposite direction: At the beginning of the 20th century, “hook up” meant ‘meet’ and ‘marry,’ in the 1980s ‘become romantically or sexually involved,’ and in the 1990s ‘engage in kissing, petting, or (usu.) sexual intercourse.’) Out of the mouths of the media, the story of the grown-up Kate and Wills (whom we will presently give a well-deserved rest) basically runs like this: They meet and become friends, then form a romantic attachment, live together, roundly deny rumors of Kate’s pregnancy, and eventually get married.

The scenario of friendship first leading perhaps to some kind of romantic couplehood is perhaps the gold classic. Diogenes Laertes in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers tells us that when asked “What is a friend?” Aristotle replied, “A single soul housed in two bodies” [μία ψυχὴ δύο σώμασιν ἐνοικουσα]. The idea that a friend is someone with whom you share a single soul shows up in Horace’s ode (I.3), a propempticon in honor of his friend and fellow poet Virgil’s impending trip to Greece. (A propempticon—literally, ‘something accompanying’—is a sort of literary carry-on for you to take on a journey and by convention is addressed not to you but to your means of transport, in this case, a ship.) Horace refers to Virgil as “half of my soul” [animae dimidium meae]. Less than a century later, Statius in his “Propempticon Maecio Celeri” [‘Propempticon for Maecius Celerus’] goes Horace one better, referring to his subject as “the greater part of my [lit. our] soul” [animae partem nostrae maiorem]. Fast forward to 1590 and Sir Philip Sidney’s posthumously published The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia in which Argalus addresses his wife Parthenia as “My deare, my deare, my better halfe” and on to the OED, which informs us that the expression “better half” is “orig. my better half, the more than half of my being; said of a very close and intimate friend…; esp. (after Sidney) used for ‘my husband’ or ‘wife’; now, jocularly appropriated to the latter.”

While the assertion that the epithet has come to apply exclusively to the female member of a couple perhaps betokens more a trend than a fait accompli (at least in America), the concomitant evolution from serious to jocular usage is indisputable. Compare “my old lady” (as in “Who was that lady I seen you eating peas with last night?” “That was no lady: that was my wife.”). “My old lady” (like “my old man”) while gender-specific is, out of context, relationship-ambiguous: Your old lady (old man) can be either your mate or your mother (father). It’s not clear if this example of semantic overloading belongs in the same class as the familiar use of such kinship terms as daddy-o, brother, sister, or, originally, pal—a borrowing of the Romany word for ‘brother’ with which it is cognate—to designate people not related to you by blood.

Such ambiguities are not restricted to English. In Spanish, your better half is your media naranja (literally, ‘half [an] orange,’ presumably because if you cut an orange evenly in half, the two parts that form the whole are indistinguishable from each other). Grammatically feminine but semantically unmarked for gender, your media naranja can be either male or female. Also grammatically feminine but semantically unmarked for gender is Spanish pareja, which can refer to a couple or to either member of a couple, to a dancing partner, or to a mate, all of which English glosses are themselves gender-agnostic. Indeed, mate goes so far as to be even species-agnostic, a fact no doubt responsible for the disambiguating adage “One man’s mate is another man’s person.”