The scandal resulting in Paul Wolfowitz's resignation as president of the World Bank has brought to light, once again, one of the more pervasive problems facing Americans today. I'm not talking about corruption in the halls of power or the use of a flimsy pretext for removing a highly placed individual. I'm talking about a linguistic problem. We still don't have a suitable, all-purpose word for "adult girlfriend."
That Paul Wolfowitz has a girlfriend at all is shocking enough -- evidence, if you needed it, that power attracts and absolute power attracts absolutely -- but that we still, after all these years, can't come up with a more dignified word for what Shaha Ali Riza is to him is truly an embarrassment.
Too old to be what she would have been called in the 1950s (his "niece"), she's been labeled with all manner of awkward, unsatisfactory terms by the press.
"Girlfriend" is certainly inaccurate; she's no longer a girl and something more than a friend. Had their positions been reversed, I doubt that NPR would have called him her boyfriend.
Sterile and awkward, "female companion" brings to mind both love for hire and guide animals.
Something more delicate and euphemistic is "lady friend," but that has the whiff of geriatrics about it not yet appropriate to the couple involved.
"Partner" implies a balance of power that I suspect is absent in the relationship -- Shaha Ali Riza is no slouch, mind you, but she is dating the boss.
The charmingly dated "mistress" speaks of black lace negligees and clandestine meetings in mirror-lined hotel rooms. Too Frenchified for Wolfie, I think.
I haven't yet heard Ms. Riza called Wolfowitz's "lover," but maybe I'm not listening at the right doors. I'd be surprised if anyone has. Like your parents, they aren't a couple you want to think of as ever doing it, and "lover" evokes just such an image. Now that you have that picture in your mind, try to shake it if you can.
So what's left? As a 45-year old woman who lives with a man who is not my husband (or anyone else's), I struggle daily with this Gordian nomenclature knot. Fortunately, there is a word that just fits the bill, one that -- as far as I know -- carries no baggage at all. Unfortunately, most dictionaries dismiss it as "archaic" and it has fallen from usage. I've been waging a small, wholly ineffectual campaign to bring this word back into currency.
But this is America, land of dreams, and my dream is to make a positive change in the quality of our discourse. Here goes: Shaha Ali Riza is the leman of Paul Wolfowitz. A leman is a lover or sweetheart of either sex. She is his leman, and he is hers.
Consider yourself conscripted into my war for this word. Use it as often as possible. Help make America a less awkward place!