How Did ‘Power Couple’ Become The New Standard For Relationship Success?

The phrase was just added to the dictionary, so according to linguists, it’s here to stay.

To the likely chagrin of language traditionalists, a bunch of edgy new words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary last month. BRB, TTYL, l8r and other initialisms are among the additions to its printed pages, along with many two-word phrases, including “starter marriage” and “wake-up call.”

If you feel like you’ve read the news of these particular dictionary additions before, you might’ve. Oxford English Dictionary is the more discerning version of the company’s reference collections, and it’s a sort of end-all, be-all of wordhood – once you’ve made it there, you’ve made history, and you’ll never be erased.

By contrast, Oxford hosts a range of other reference texts, including Oxford Online, a resource for emerging language trends, or, as the Head of U.S. Dictionaries for Oxford Katherine Martin told The Huffington Post, “a snapshot of the way English is used right now.” So, words like ROFL and tl;dr were added to Oxford Online before they made the cut for the OED.

Notable among the new OED editions, which were dominated by netspeak, was a phrase that’s relatively new even though it’s not tied to technology: power couple.

The phrase stands out, and not just because it’s a two-word entry. (These aren’t so rare, Martin explained: “English is a language that can form words by compounding, and it happens that sometimes you can leave a space in between them. Whereas other languages that can form words that way, like German, have these super-long words.”)

What’s interesting about “power couple” is that it marks a change not in technological advancement, but in social advancement. Although powerful men and women have been envied and revered in the past ― and certainly ambitious couples existed long before this dictionary addition, if we’re to include Sonny and Cher, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, etc. ― there doesn’t seem to have been a word to describe a pairing of romantic partners who are each successful in their own right.

“I think you would expect this word to come about in the late 20th century,” Martin said. “We’re seeing two ambitious people with powerful careers being married to each other.”

The first recorded use of the word, according to the OED, is from Newsweek in 1983. The sentence reads, “Robert and Elizabeth Dole have become a Washington power couple, heirs to all the attention and mystique the title implies.”

Even though the sentence is the first recorded use of the word, Martin emphasizes that coinage can happen much earlier than recorded use. People may speak the phrase, or it may be written in less public outlets. In fact, Martin thinks the Newsweek example indicates that the word was already commonplace by then; if the word “power couple” implies something to readers, then they’re likely already familiar with it.

“I would not expect to see this phrase being used that much earlier,” Martin says. “In the late 20th century, there was a new social reality for married couples. Before then it was relatively uncommon for married women to have high-powered careers.”

One theory is that the word originated in fan discussions of soap operas, specifically in reference to a pair from “General Hospital,” Luke Spencer and Laura Weber. The couple was referred to at the time as a super couple, a phrase that may be more apt to Laura’s super-human ability to recover from a coma, and come back from the dead. From there, the phrase evolved, taking on new meanings as it grew.

A Google trends search shows that “power couple” saw a spike in usage in 2015, surpassing another phrase that’s in many ways its antithesis: alpha male. Not that the two are directly correlated, but machismo and equality can be at odds, and for now, the term for equality is winning out.

The uptick is worldwide, not just in the United States and the U.K.; a closer look shows that “power couple” has gained steam in Brazil and India, where reality shows bearing the word as a title have aired successfully. Both series feature celebrity couples living together in one house, competing to demonstrate whose relationship is the strongest. In India, the winners were dance show creator Naved Jaffrey and his wife Sayeeda, who he married two months after they were introduced.

On the show, Huffington Post India explains, “Participants have to carry out various tasks that test their individual courage as well as their relationships. Their significant others have to bet amounts on their partners’ abilities to complete these tasks.” This implies that, at least internationally, “power couple” can be taken to mean more than ambition and success; happy, healthy couple-hood in itself is an accomplishment.

Such a bald celebration of married life might not be as big of a hit in America, where “The Bachelor” franchise ― hinged on the romance of finding love, but not exploring what comes next ― is a wild success. That “power couple” has taken off here at all is a wonder. Singledom is increasingly celebrated by feminists as a means of retaining independence, and legally “single” couples as a way of forging their own path, one that doesn’t involve the baggage-heavy moniker of marriage.

Why, then, do we fixate on celebrity marriages, or unions between wealthy CEOs, ransacking public traces of their personal lives for any hint of normalcy, of relatability? It could be that power couple-hood is an image that promises an alluring fantasy: marriage and independence, two ideas that are presented as at odds, existing together in harmony.

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