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THE WORD

Old boyfriends

PAUL WOLFOWITZ'S STINT at the World Bank ends this week, but the debate he ignited by getting his girlfriend a big promotion goes on. Not the ethics debate, but the language wrangle: Whether boyfriend and girlfriend are suitable terms for people in their 50s and 60s.

Even The New York Times used girlfriend, in violation of the paper's style guidelines, noted Ben Yagoda in Slate: "The use of the g-word for Wolfowitz's 52-year-old consort, Shaha Ali Riza, was a new frontier for the newspaper."

Ruth Walker of the Christian Science Monitor also took up the question: "Riza is unquestionably a grown-up, professional woman, not a 'girl,'" she wrote in her Verbal Energy column. "The question I'm asking is, What is the adult form of 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend'?"

It's hardly a new question, though, and even The Times's flirtation with girlfriend is no big deal. Yes, the style guide says that boyfriend and girlfriend are "informal and best reserved for teenagers." Yes, it says that "companion is a suitable term for an unmarried partner."

But this is squishy language by stylebook standards, as it has to be in a world where people of all ages refer to their girlfriends and boyfriends. Wolfowitz and Riza may be the highest-ranking couple to be called boyfriend and girlfriend in recent years, but they've got plenty of company. In last Sunday's edition alone, The Times used girlfriend and boyfriend 20 times, of people from their teens into their 70s.

There's no good way around it, as word watchers have complained for decades. In his 2002 book "Predicting New Words," Allan Metcalf reprinted a list of language gaps first published in 1955; it sought, among other words, "A dignified substitute for boyfriend, suitable for women who are no longer teenagers but who have a committed relationship," and a similar term for girlfriend.

The problem is plain enough: Many of the available terms, adopted when extramarital sex was discussed in winks and whispers, are either leering or censorious. Twenty years ago, word maven William Safire noted the shortcomings of mistress, lover, paramour, significant other, and POSSLQ, the census abbreviation for "Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters." His vote was for sweetheart -- "we could all use a little romanticism" -- but even then, sweetheart was an old-fashioned, Valentine's Day sort of word, and its sugar content remains unpalatably high.

Fiancee was once a common euphemism in news reports involving unmarried couples, but the French word has never gotten comfortable here, and its fig-leaf function is now obsolete. The businesslike partner gets some use, but it's a word you're more likely to use of acquaintances than of close friends (or as a way to identify a member of a gay couple).

Girlfriend and boyfriend, however, are thoroughly naturalized words, in use for more than a century. They developed as specialized senses of the literal girl friend and boy friend, meaning either young friends or friends whom you knew from childhood. An 1870 history, for instance, quotes a youthful letter sent by Richard Henry Lee "to his boy-friend, George Washington."

The Oxford English dictionary dates the romantic girlfriend to 1892, quoting a sorrowful book dedication by its own F.J. Furnivall, a philologist and the second editor of the OED: "To the memory of Teena Rochfort Smith my much-respected and deeply-regretted girl-friend." At 58, Furnivall had left his wife for Smith, a young Shakespeare scholar, who died soon after when she accidentally set her petticoats on fire.

And if Wolfowitz and Riza are in the senior set, as boy- and girlfriends go, they're not the only middle-aged folks to have gotten the label.

A 1937 Times feature on Albania's King Zog, 41 years old and in need of a wife, reported that "for years he had a girl friend, an Austrian baronin, who lived with her sister in Tirana."

It may be that the feminist language reform, dedicated to stamping out the condescending use of girl for middle-aged office workers, also put a damper on the public propagation of girlfriend and boyfriend. But men and women, in private, still went "out with the boys" and "the girls." And there's no reason those words have to carry their juvenile sense into the compound form; after all, we can baby-sit not just babies, but also parents, parakeets, and projects.

True, boyfriend and girlfriend remain informal. They're the paper napkins and canvas tote bags of the lexicon, inelegant but often indispensable. If older couples think the words are right for their relationship, who's to tell them otherwise?

And though we may not be ready to see these labels in obituaries, that too could change. By the time the boomer wave crashes on the eternal shore, maybe girlfriend and boyfriend will be as honorable and headstone-worthy as husband and wife are now.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

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