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THE WORD

Friends and lovers

A RECENT COLUMN on marital terminology brought a prompt query from reader Lauren Thomas: "Have you been inundated with messages reminding you of the Boston marriage, referring to a long-term arrangement between two women who shared a relationship and a household?"

In fact, there was no flood of e-mail, but Thomas's point was well taken: How could I have overlooked the home-grown idiom made newly relevant by Massachusetts' legalization of same-sex matrimony? "Boston marriage" isn't anyone's idea of a vogue word, but the term is still current in the Northeast; David Mamet used it as the title of a play that premiered in Cambridge in 1991. Historians, too, have done their part to keep it alive, as they debate whether devoted 19th-century pairs like Sarah Orne Jewett and Anne Fields were lovers, lesbians who didn't know it, or just good friends.

But what was "Boston marriage" when it got its name, sometime in the late 19th century? "A long-term, intimate, sometimes discreetly sexual relationship between two women," says the American Heritage Dictionary. Like many other sources, AHD mentions Henry James's novel "The Bostonians" as a possible inspiration for the term, but the derivation seems suspect: James's leading ladies have at best a shaky Boston engagement.

The reason AHD hedges its definition is that nobody has any idea what the consenting adults were (or weren't) doing in most Boston marriages. It was a heady time for women, now working outside their homes (and going on strike), attending college, and throwing themselves into social causes. "Boston women proudly led in such developments," wrote University of Arizona professor Sarah Deutsch in the Organization of American Historians newsletter earlier this year, and their efforts revised the social geography of the city.

But the main point was independence, not sex; women now had interests beyond their families. The Globe, noted Deutsch, saw this as a dangerous trend: In 1895 the newspaper printed "a futuristic cartoon depicting a twentieth-century summer resort called `The Eveless Eden,"' where vacationing men "moped about" because their wives were too busy for holidays.

Meanwhile, female friends were free to lavish endearments and caresses on one another without arousing suspicion (in themselves or others) of what would later be labeled "deviance." As historian Lillian Faderman, among others, has argued, today's categories simply didn't apply. Some Boston-marrieds no doubt were passionately sexual, while others simply found life with a compatible friend a very congenial arrangement. Even today, such a model has its points, as writer Pagan Kennedy explained in a magazine piece a few years ago. Her "Boston marriage" with a female friend was devoted to making their Somerville home an emotional joint venture, with men on the side, domiciled elsewhere.

Given the infinite variety of human attachments, it's no wonder "Boston marriage" has retained its ambiguity. The writer who calls it "a euphemism for a lesbian relationship" -- a fairly frequent definition -- is making an unwarranted presumption, and so is the one who calls it a "warm but platonic" pairing.

In that respect, of course, Boston marriage then is very like Boston marriage now. A joke that's making the rounds comes to mind: As Massachusetts state senator Robert Havern tells it, during the Legislature's debate he admonished colleagues that if gay intimacy was what bothered them, they should support legalization of same-sex marriage. "You're all married guys -- who knows better than you that after marriage there is no sex?"

. . .

THE LIVING DEAD: How to punctuate "real live," Ideas colleague Joshua Glenn asked, in a phrase like "`a real, live license plate'?" But maybe that was a bad example, he added: "It seems wrong to apply `real, live' to an inanimate object."

It does, once you think about it. But you're better off not thinking about it: "Real live" (I like it, usually, without the comma) has been around since 1887, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It's jocular, the OED says, except when used of inanimate things ("A real live glass milk-jug"). In that case it's slang -- or at least it was a century ago.

Real live is still jokey, but it seems to have no problem, these days, hooking up with mere objects and concepts: "Real live violins" and "real live statistics" are now a real live part of our language.

E-mail freeman@globe.com. For a month's worth of The Word, visit www.boston.com/ideas/freeman.

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