The shifting meaning of the word "polyamory"
Part of the reason was the media coverage of its entry into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July 2006 (the dictionary publisher mailed the media a press release). Then a couple months later, the Oxford English Dictionary made the word official also.
This has cut two ways. When a new word becomes known, a new concept becomes thinkable. And researchable. Anyone can type the word into Wikipedia or Google. Both of these are fine starting places for learning about the poly world, its ideals, and its hard-won wisdom about how polyamory is most likely to be done successfully.
On the other hand, when a concept goes mass-market, it often gets cheapened and degraded. Even the most wonderful trend is liable to turn sour on going downmarket, much to its originators' dismay, with ugly unintended consequences.
Think of the psychedelic drug movement. What began with great promise among a few writers and intellectuals in the mid-1960s led to a destructive, downmarket drug culture by the 1970s.
Multipartnering is as old as history. But the words "polyamorous" and "polyamory" were invented in 1990 and 1992 in order to name a very modern, Western, egalitarian, humanistic version of it one built on love and equal partnership with, at minimum, "the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved."
To its creators, the word denoted something wonderful and precious and (for all practical purposes) truly new under the sun, which lacked a name. The word was the sole property of this small community because no one else much noticed.
So I worry about straws in the wind such as the recent mainstream usages of "polyamory" collected below. One of them is funny and on-target but many are ignorant references to plain old two-timers, playboys, and philandering rats. If we don't speak up to contradict this usage when we see it, we may find ourselves losing our very means to have an identity.
A sportswriter for the Dallas Morning News opines thusly about the Texas Rangers' pitching prospects:
When it comes to starting pitching, the Rangers have been regular playboys. Oh, you know the type: Flirt a bunch with the young things, maybe even make a promise or two. And then, just when it comes time to work at the relationship, the Rangers dump 'em and run.
...They offer the starting pitcher for today's home opener against Boston. It is Robinson Tejeda, just two weeks removed from his 25th birthday. He follows Brandon McCarthy, who started at Los Angeles on Wednesday.... Call them polyamorous if you want, but the Rangers swear they are committed to the young duo....
A columnist at a newspaper in Newfoundland:
Then there are words that don't define anything new, but rather hope to define a new attitude, like polyamorous; a state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time. We used to call that 'two-timing' or 'running around'; as in "my dear he's nothing but a two-timer; he's always running around on her."
From the McGill University student newspaper:
In my early twenties I was in a very different place. I could talk the polyamorous talk but couldn’t walk the walk. I was the type of girl who got emotionally involved....
From a Seattle Weekly restaurant review:
Sometimes, Dillon had forced several nice flavors together like a bad (polyamorous) blind date, such as a "Havana-style pad thai" that set rice noodles and mixed shellfish alongside the discordant flavors of five-spice Chinese sausage and coconut curry.
From a music review on PopMatters:
Each song is like a three-minute vignette of romantic angst: she revels in her own infidelity on the sizzling “You Know I’m No Good” and warns a polyamorous lover about his ways on the ska-inflected “Just Friends” ("The guilt will kill you if she don’t first").
A soap-opera reviewer uses it to mean serial monogamy:
If anyone understands polyamory, it's Ridge. No, make that Brooke, who is poised to marry the chiselled one (Ronn Moss) for perhaps the sixth time (even actress Katherine Kelly Lange says she's lost count) and has also hooked up with his brother, his father, his half-brother, her son-in-law and her second son-in-law....
A prominent sports blogger snarks at readers who patronize his rivals:
I know many of you polyamorous philanderers enjoy other blogs on the SB Nation network....
A columnist for The Observer (London) muses on the trend of English girls outdoing each other with slutty T-shirts:
...These T-shirt messages fall into several sub-categories. There are declarations of favoured proclivities such as 'I Love My Hair Pulled', 'Polyamorous 24-7', 'Menage A Moi' and 'Born To Swallow'. There are announcements of supposed neediness, such as 'Suffering From Shag Deprivation' and 'I'm an SL-T: All I Need Is U'. There are warnings to other females such as 'Your Bloke's Had Me' and 'My Boyfriend's Wife Hates Me'....
All of which may be why a poster to the alt.polyamory discussion list asks for a new word:
I sometimes think the word polyamory can be a negative, and wonder if other words would connect better with those who don't understand that poly can be whatever a person wants, as long as its open and honest. That it need not be sleeping around or destructive activities.
But we have no other defining word. We need to fight for the one we've got.
Keep those letters going out.
Update, August 2010: Franklin Veaux has created a detailed, accurate, and funny infographic defining the subsets of nonmonogamy and their many overlaps. Talk about geekdom.
On the subject of evolving poly language: See ‘There Aren’t Words for What We Do or How We Feel So We Have To Make Them Up’: Constructing Polyamorous Languages in a Culture of Compulsory Monogamy, by Ani Ritchie and Meg Barker (2006).
Polyamory is an emerging sexual story that troubles mononormativity: the dominant discourse of monogamy which is reproduced and perpetuated in everyday conversation and saturates mainstream media depictions. Through an analysis of online discussions, websites and self-help books, this article explores the ways in which members of polyamorous communities construct their identities through language. We argue that the potentials of polyamory are, to some extent, constrained by the conventional mononormative language of partnerships, infidelities and jealousy. However, alternative languages are emerging which offer new discursive possibilities
for the development of polyamorous identities, relationships and emotions.
*sigh* Why is this so difficult for people to get? Polyamory = Many LOVES. It's not "fucking around." This is not a difficult concept.
Alan, I couldn't agree more! And we poly activists need all the help we can get - the more people write to correct misuse of the term polyamory, the more seriously editors and journalists are likely to take the subject and the less confusion they will create by continuing to use the word inappropriately.
And lest people think that their one voice won't matter, let me assure you that it will. More often than not, journalists do respond to me when I write and respectfully point out their mistaken use of the term polyamory.
Regarding polyamory going mass market, one thing to watch out for - and be accepting of - is widely different people starting to try it out, successfully or not, than before.
I say this as a "new" person - someone who learned of polyamory over 10 years ago but has never been part of the community, never practiced it, never thought I would. Suddenly I find myself starting in a polyamorous situation, and while I'm learning from the communities that exist, I am not into paganism, don't like Heinlein, I'm not a big computer geek, I don't seem to fit any of the stereotypes other than the fact that I'm finding myself capable of "loving more" and my wife is, too.
As long as established poly communities don't become defensive against lots of new people trying it out, and allow the word some flexibility, everything will be fine.
It reminds me of some gay friends of mine who very much fit none of the gay stereotypes anyone knows, and don't see themselves as part of the "gay culture or community" but - well, there they are, and in this day and age that's ok, they're accepted and allowed to be who they are.
that's why i like to spell it polyamoury ;) amour, mes amis. i say to my canadian pals who think i mean swinging.
This is my first visit to this blog and I'm sure it won't be the last :)
My thoughts (gosh, I just love opining on stuff :D )
Polyamoury is a newly official word, it hasn't had much time to get into the public consciousness yet, but I'm sure it will, in time. It's in at least two dictionaries now, so it will be there until somebody takes it out.
Many people are persistently in the habit of "misusing" many older words, such as "love". I've heard "love" used many times as an attempt to manipulate or coerce, or to inflict guilt or shame. I can't say that other people's "misuse" of the term "love" has anything to do with my personal use or non use of it. I can't control how other people choose to use their words, and they can't control how I use mine.
I believe that over time, the term "polyamoury" (yes, I prefer that spelling as well :) ) will settle into the public consciousness, and any "misuses" may or may not attract links to wikipedia pages or dictionary pages.
I use "misuse" in quotes, because I can't say that I feel it is something I can comment on about how another person uses a word. If they use a word in a way which is meaningful to them, then who am I to say that this is wrong? Just as they may be careless with the use of such terms, so it is that I feel a responsibility to be precise with the way I use terms.
People may listen to what I have to say, or not. I have no control over that. I do, however, have control over how *I* use my terms, and I hope I do take all the care I can to ensure I use terms as precisely as I am able.
Yes, it bothers me when I see people using a label with which I identify myself, in a context which does not represent my ethics or behaviour. But their use of the term in this context does not change the fact that my behaviour is in fact ethical according to my own rules.
I will maintain a poly life in the way that fits me and my partners, and I will use and define "polyamoury" as it applies to me. But I can't find myself feeling too upset when uninformed people use the term in a way which has nothing to do with me, because that simply happens far too often for me to have the energy to respond each and every time.
Still, I did enjoy responding in this instance. :)
Thanks for reading, and hello the blog. I'll be back. :)
ps: I've been working on my verbosity, but it's still a bit out of control. as you see. :p
The Seattle Weekly comment seems harmless enough. But the other ones... wow. That's just bad English.
I agree, polyamorous is a good word for what we do. Let's not let them get away with this.
Thanks, great post! x
I'm partial to "idealist". :)
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