I ran across this story from the Fashion & Style section of the NYTimes thanks to a facebook friend:
That and watching L’amour est dans le pré last night got me thinking about the way French people talk about relationships.
The Times article is basically about how, in English, we lack acceptable words for an unmarried partner, with whom we have started to build or already built a life.
It was striking to me how much this is not a problem in France. The French have a number of words for a significant other:
Mon copain/ma copine: The simplest way of saying “my boyfriend/girlfriend”
Mon chéri/Ma chérie: My sweetheart, though not nearly so cheesy-sounding in French
Mon ami/amie: My friend, with a clear romantic/spouse-type connotation. This one is peculiar because, thanks to that letter a, it’s easy to keep gender-neutral in oral French.
Ma femme: Typically this really means “my wife,” but I learned from Un Gars Une Fille that couples who are not married can use it. I find it a little weird to say “mon mari” in the same way, but French colleagues have asked me about my “mari” without caring that we’re not married. (Btw—I found Un Gars Une Fille good for learning French in general.)
Mon compagnon/ma compagne: I’ve only heard this used once, actually, but it made perfect sense, referring to an unmarried couple I know who have three children together.
L’homme/la femme de ta vie: The love of your life (this may be the only one I like better in English!)
Mes beaux-parents: Not about your partner but about your in-laws, who are called your in-laws as soon as you start dating and not just after the wedding. I’ve been known to say it this way to an American friend or two in English, and they typically ask, “When did you get married?”
For the moment I use something of a mix between mon copain, mon chéri, and mon ami depending on whom I’m talking to. Mon copain feels a tad too young and unserious, but with other young people it makes sense. At work I tend toward mon ami, and in other situations mon chéri works as something of a compromise between the two.
Did I forget any? If you’re in a bilingual couple, what do/did you use before marrying?