What Does ‘Fiancé’ Mean, Anyway?

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Photo: T.Formanowski/iStockphoto

In America, marriage looks increasingly like a status symbol — something to aspire to, but not necessarily a universal rite of passage. And Hanna Rosin at Slate has noticed an unexpected by-product of this trend: More and more people are using the word “fiancé” to refer to their long-term partners, regardless of whether or not they have any active plans to get married. She writes:

I first became aware of this when I was reporting a story in a small town in Wisconsin a couple of years ago and “Bug” Smith, a 50-year-old man who worked as a machinist introduced me to his “fiancée.” I was about to say “Congratulations!” but something stopped me. Their union did not have the air of expectant change about it. From their domestic surroundings, it looked like they lived basically as a married couple already, his boots next to hers by the front door, pictures of kids above the mantel. I later found out they’d been living together for 15 years and had two children.

Since then I have come across this phenomenon dozens of times, almost always in working-class couples, and usually younger ones. Someone will introduce me to his or her fiancé. But what they mean is more like my “steady lady” or my “steady man.”

Fiancé is used less to signify a couple’s long-term engagement than as a way to satisfy the expectations of a culture that still views marriage as the norm — even as it becomes economically elusive. The sociologist Pamela Smock observes that long-term partners tend to use the term fiancé when dealing with authorities, in professional situations, or in social situations that demand an aura of seriousness. “Girlfriend or boyfriend belittles the relationship, and partner feels like something people in New York and San Francisco say, so fiancé fills in the gap. It conveys at least the correct level of emotional attachment, which is: something like spouse but not quite,” Rosin explains.  

Rosin suggests that maybe we all just try to ease up on the marriage ideal. That's one solution, but we'd also propose trying to make “partner” happen.