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Are we ever too old to say 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'?

As designated word nerds, we here at That's What They Say whole-heartedly admit that sometimes we do things in our spare time that are a bit, well, geeky. But also pretty fascinating.

For instance, English Professor Anne Curzan has been been working on a project that traces changes in the New York Times style guide. She's been perusing stylebooks from the beginning of the 20th century to the present to see what has changed over time.

In the 1976 edition, she found this entry for boyfriend and girlfriend: "Despite the wide currency these objectionable colloquialisms have attained, they should not be used until it has been definitely established that no other term or description will suffice."

Seems a bit harsh, no?

When Curzan saw that entry, she assumed that people found these terms "objectionable" because they were just coming into use. Sure enough, when she checked Google Books, she found that "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" took off around 1960.

In fact, neither term is really that old. The Oxford English Dictionary has the first citation for "boyfriend" in 1906 and for "girlfriend" in 1892.

The 1999 edition of the style book describes these terms as "informal" and "best reserved for teenagers." But in 2015, we get this: "While some traditionalists still view them as informal, these terms are now widely accepted for people of any age."

That said, some of you who are of a certain age, may still feel a little odd referring to your significant other as your boyfriend or girlfriend. So what do you prefer to call them? Let us know below.


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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