Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: That music…
Frau Blücher: Yes. It’s in your blood – it’s in the blood of ALL Frankensteins. It reaches the soul when words are useless. Your grandfather used to play it to the creature HE vas making.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Then it was you all the time.
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: You played that music in the middle of the night…
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: …to get us to the laboratory.
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: That was YOUR cigar smoldering in the ashtray.
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: And it was you… who left my grandfather’s book out for me to find.
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: So that I would…
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Then you and Victor were…
Frau Blücher: YES. YES. Say it. He vas my… BOYFRIEND.

(Young Frankenstein, 1974)

What of course makes Frau Blücher’s gushing admission so humorous is our expectation that she will use the term “lover” or “man” instead of “boyfriend”.  It points out however, our disease with terms that describe a relationship that is more than a friendship, but for a number of reasons is not marriage.  A century or more ago, one had a friend, possibly some kind of ‘courtship”, and then a rapid proposal of marriage, if we’ve learned nothing from Jane Austen.   And if we’ve learned nothing from P.G. Woodhouse, it’s not only rapid, but out of control:

“Broke off your engagement? How long were you engaged?”

“About two minutes. It may have been less. I hadn’t a stop-watch. I
proposed to her at ten last night in the saloon. She accepted me. I was
just going to kiss her when we heard someone coming. I went out. Coming
along the corridor was that infernal what’s-her-name–Mrs. Vanderley’s
maid–Pilbeam. Have you ever been accepted by the girl you love,
Reggie?”

“Never. I’ve been refused dozens—-

So, exactly when did this whole “boyfriend” business start? I’m glad you asked!  Thanks to a wonderful tool from google, one is able to see the frequency of the occurrence of a given word or phrase over time.  Let’s look at when “boyfriend” shows up:


Much to my surprise, it’s was a very recent invention, largely 1960 forward, essentially a fifty year old word.  I did a quick scan of the 20th century classic “The Tower Treasure” (1927) in which I was sure that Joe Hardy’s girlfriend appeared.  She’s there all right, but she’s never introduced as “girlfriend”, “lover”, or “friend with benefits” – she just appears as Iola Morton and we are left fill in the blanks.

Let’s move to the real world.  In the actual world people actually lived together without the benefit of marriage for years.  The term “Boston marriage” was used by Henry James in The Bostonians (1886), to describe a long-term co-habiting relationship between two unmarried women.  However, this relationship may have been a non-sexual one, but afforded the parties the only way for women to have a career.

When, in the 1970’s,  the United States Census Bureau needed a phrase to describe an unmarried man and woman living together, they invented the term “POSSLQ”, “Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters”.  A somewhat earthier term, “shacking up”, had been in use since the 40’s:

While “POSSLQ”, “shacking up”, and “in a relationship” may describe the union, unholy or not, but don’t describe the parties involved.  One newcomer to the game is “Significant other”.  The term’s first reference is in 1953 by the psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, in “The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry.”  It’s since been widely adopted since it can refer to persons of any gender.  A case example might be, you think John is gay, but rather than make an awkward assumption, you can add “Please bring your significant other.”  A similar protocol shows up in the wedding invitation to a single person and a “Plus one” guest.  No muss, no fuss.  Perhaps not surprising, “SO” only really got traction in the late sixties:

Now that we’ve looked at individual terms over time lets do some comparing:

We can see that ‘lover” is the big winner here, although it may refer to a non-sexual relationship (Alex is a lover of Gothic churches), the phrase “they were lovers” holds largely steady over time:

We’ll leave it at that – maybe our wedding invitations should just say “Susan and lover”.

References
==========================

My Man Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse – http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8jeev10.txt

How Does POSSLQ Measure Up? Historical Estimates of Cohabitation – http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0036/twps0036.html

http://books.google.com.au/books?id=9_GUnVqJYYoC&pg=PA53&ots=32lW0qk6bk&dq=Interpersonal+Theory+of+Psychiatry&sig=k-Jad879C27Aw1sbu6GHJdksBOw#PPP1,M1