Upon reading an article this week referring to charges that embattled World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz had "used his influence to raise the salary of his girlfriend," veteran New York Times readers in mid-coffee sip could be forgiven for performing a spit-take. The use of the g-word for Wolfowitz's 52-year-old consort, Shaha Ali Riza, was a new frontier for the newspaper.
All previous references in the news columns had described her as his "companion." (Maureen Dowd plays by a different set of rules.) Ditto the woman with whom New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine keeps company. The usage follows the letter and spirit of the Times' style guide, which notes, "Companion is a suitable term for an unmarried partner of the same or the opposite sex." (The entry continues: "In the case of a gay couple, resist longtime companion, originally a euphemism and now a parodied cliché; substitute, for example, companion of 27 years.") Companion certainly does the job, though I must say it calls to my mind a large dog or a home health-care aide.
Checking the appellation trail left by other news organizations on the Wolfowitz case, one finds, most commonly, girlfriend and companion, but also friend (CNN.com), romantic partner (the Dallas Morning News), a close female friend (the Money Times of India), and even gal (the Village Voice). Bloomberg News has used partner, which the Times style guide calls "a suitable term for an unmarried companion of the same sex or the opposite one. But if the context allows misreading to mean a business partnership, use companion instead." I found only one reference to Riza as Wolfowitz's "lover." This was in a dispatch from the Sofia News Agency of Bulgaria and may be ascribed to language barriers. As the Times style guide observes, "lover is a suitable term for a partner in a literary or historic liaison or a highly visible romance between public personalities in show business, for example."
At this point, my best guess is that the girlfriend that made its way into this week's Times article was a slip. As the style guide sniffs about girlfriend and boyfriend, "The terms are informal and best reserved for teenagers." The very next day the paper went back to companion. But who knows? Maybe this is the forward flank of a semantic shift. The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of girlfriend to refer to a romantic partner is the 1926 Broadway musical The Girl Friend, which featured a Rodgers and Hart song with the same title. In early feminist days, of course, girl was disparaged as infantilizing, an animus that led to the classic "Doonesbury" caption, "It's a baby woman!"
Lately, girl has had a surprising revival; women of all ages seem to use it to refer to themselves and their friends (in some, but only some, cases with the same irony gays bring to queer). And maybe the Times' use of the word is a sign that girlfriend is on the verge of seeming appropriate for companions of all ages.
But whether or not girlfriend has legs, companion should go: It's just too staid a word to apply to an object of passion, adoration, and/or love. If the Times style gurus are looking for suggestions, how about going with classic showbiz: lady and man? They are admittedly a little cheesy, but they say what they mean and mean what they say. In the immortal lyrics of the Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Hill:
She is the dream I hold onto.
She is sleeping now, as I write this song.
Pulls the pillow closer when I am gone.
She is my lady, and I am her man.