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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Polyamory is the wrong word.

Recently I have had or witnessed more than a few discussions about what the word Polyamory or other Poly related terms mean. I've noticed something of an interesting trend which is that Poly people generally seem to dislike labels, are accepting of other lifestyles, and tend to avoid trying to place a specific definition on the word Polyamory. At the same time many are frustrated when they encounter others presenting themselves as Polyamorous but then find their lifestyle isn't what they consider Polyamorous.

A specific comment I saw was Deborah Anapol asking if she should discontinue use of the term Polyamory in favor of the term Responsible Non-Monogamy. My response to that comment was:
To me, lumping Polyamory under the Responsible Non-Monogamy umbrella assumes a static definition of the word Polyamory that defines something of a moral standard. Unfortunately I see plenty of people applying the Polyamory label to themselves that live a lifestyle that could hardly be considered “Responsible”.
It also seems that any definition of Polyamory that relies on the term “Monogamy” implies that Monogamy is the norm and Polyamory is an alternative or variation which could be considered of lesser value or subordinate to Monogamy.
If the problem is that Polyamory isn’t descriptive enough maybe that is because the word is being used casually by many people to define a large variety of lifestyles causing the word to have lost a defined meaning? Rather than finding a new word maybe the solution is to stop accepting the inappropriate application of the word Polyamory and cause it to once again have a defined and valuable definition.

Not long after this discussion I became involved in another discussion about the word Primary. Comments like "Someone can have multiple Primaries" or "Primary doesn't mean First" abounded to which my response was to quote the dictionary definition that basically states a Primary is first in order. You would have thought I dropped a fire-bomb on a group of kindergartners singing "We are the World". Basically I was told that creating a static definition for the word Primary was unfair, people should be allowed to define it for themselves. Not to mention the word Primary doesn't address the possibility of two people being in "first position", nor did the dictionary definition take into account Polyamory.


The same people who are struggling to find a descriptive word that accurately reflects the design of their lifestyle are the same people screaming that it is unfair to create a static definition for a word and everyone should be able to define it for themselves.


I think there is a logic problem there folks. If you refuse to allow the definition of the word Primary (or any other word) because it may exclude some folks, and want to find a new word to use, how exactly will that help?

Let's try an example. We don't want to use the word Primary anymore to describe the "main" relationship someone has. The person they are married to, joined with, or otherwise have a strong relationship with that may involve kids, mortgages, and take higher priority than other relationships. Instead we are now going to use the word Plob. But wait, Plob to you means the equivalent of a traditionally defined Primary but it doesn't to me. In my Poly world everyone I have a relationship with is a Plob!! And since creating a static definition for Plob would be unfair and we need to let everyone define it for themselves, my new definition of Plob is as valid as yours.

Now we are back to the same problem we had with the word Primary originally.

Instead of changing the word, maybe we need to change how the word is used. Using it appropriately, within a well established definition, would make the word useful again. Think about any simple conversation you have with another person. You can only have a conversation that makes sense if you are both using words that are generally understood the same way by both people and used within that understanding in a logical manner. Without that you might as well be speaking different unknown languages. Even reading this article would be impossible if I defined every word I used here in a different way than you do.

What are your thoughts about this one?


  1. I do think it is difficult when people are using the terms you are used to using in a certain way in a way you find annoyingly inconsistant. However, people (including myself and my partners)DO use the term primary to mean the position rather than numerically, it is something that is a very common thing, in fact I think it is over taking the older use of the term which is a strictly numerical useage because indeed people DO feel uncomfortable referring to a partner as 'secondary' if they share their lives equally with their longer established partner and their more recent partner. That is what happens with the english language, it changes and changes often. Now people are more likely to say A is my wife and b is my gf/bf than A is my primary because.....using secondary just feels wrong and I can accept that, perhaps it might be better to go with the flow rather than get too hung up on what others are doing?

  2. Natja,
    Thanks for the comment!

    I agree with you that Primary doesn't simply mean a numerical position. Part of the definition I mentioned quoting was this:
    1. First or highest in rank, quality, or importance; principal.

    In that definition First is mentioned but it is obviously not a defining factor for the word Primary. I also agree that as used in the Poly world Primary rarely, if ever, is used simply to signify a numerical order. Honestly I can respect that and even though I don't use those terms in my own relationships, I have no problem with those who do. Often they are quite useful when used appropriately.

    Where I do get frustrated is with a conversation that goes something like this:
    Me: So you are dating Ethel now?
    Them: Yes, she is my Primary.
    Me: Awesome! Are you two living together now too?
    Them: Oh no, I still live with Lucy.
    Me: Oh, so you live with Lucy, who is your Secondary right?
    Them: No, I don't have a Secondary. Ethel and Lucy are both Primaries.

    At that point the word Primary has almost completely lost any meaning and believe me, I've had more than a few of these type conversations. Lately people I know have been complaining that the term "Primary" has become useless. Strangely enough, it is how those same people use the word Primary that has rendered the word useless. Almost like a 5 yr old making a mess then complaining that there is a mess.

    I would and often do "Go with the flow" as you say but, that can't happen all the time or we would never be ourselves. If I never questioned anything this blog wouldn't be here, nor would you and I be on the wonderful web reading each others electronic thoughts, or have any interest in doing so.

    Thanks again :)

  3. Humm, you see here is where I have a problem, Why CAN'T Ethel and Lucy both be primary? If primary is about how important the relationship IS to you, rather than who you might share a domestic arrangement to you than it is perfectly possible that both can be considered primary to you.

    Put it this way, if you have two friends, one of which you roomate with, does it follow that that the one you live with is your best or more important friend? I have lived with people I considered friends but never lived with the one I consider my best friend, feelings are stronger than my domestic environment.

    It doesn't do any good to cling on to words that are not fit for purpose, the term primary was useful for some open poly relationships but as we hear about more committed long term poly relationships 'primary' hasn't changed its meaning, it is just being used to encompass more people, people whose claim on you isn't material but IS emotional.

    The fact is, this is still quite early days for the movement and it is in a state of evolution, it makes sense that our terms are in flux also.

  4. Natja,

    You said "If primary is about how important the relationship IS to you, rather than who you might share a domestic arrangement to you than it is perfectly possible that both can be considered primary to you."

    I agree, two people could be considered of the same importance. But if that is the case why use the term "Primary" at all? By using the term in that instance it implies a hierarchical structure to the relationship. Typically you use a hierarchical structure to classify and not have multiples, like people, at the same level. It seems contradictory in the least.

    I'm not sure I follow your example. "Put it this way, if you have two friends, one of which you roomate with, does it follow that that the one you live with is your best or more important friend?" Not at all, but I would assume at that point you wouldn't be calling them your "primary" either, right?

    When you said ". . .feelings are stronger than my domestic environment." I think you were trying to make the point that the word Primary shouldn't be based upon the domestic situation. I agree completely and with most people I know who use the term Primary it has nothing to do with their domestic situation. Maybe you said that because of my example? If so, then my example was poor. The domestic situation mentioned was only intended to be incidental to the example, not supportive of it.

    I agree with you that polyamory is still evolving, and many of the terms being used need to be updated and evolve as well. I've even mentioned the idea in a few of my past articles. But I disagree that the word Primary hasn't changed. From what I see people use the word Primary lately without much regard for the actual meaning, historical or otherwise. It has changed in that it has very little meaning anymore. Almost any conversation with someone who uses the word "Primary" these days requires more conversation to understand how they define Primary. If the definition had never changed that wouldn't be happening, or we would find people are using the word inappropriately. Instead people defend the ability to use the word without any general definition.

    I know you don't agree with my point but I think you are helping me make it which is as you said "It doesn't do any good to cling on to words that are not fit for purpose".

    Instead of redefining the word (or what I'm seeing which would probably be called un-defining the word), which some people may still be trying to use appropriately, find a new word.

    Which one of us is right, only time will tell. It should be interesting to see what the language describing polyamory looks like in another 10 years. I wonder if we will even recognize it.


  5. Oh I see where you are going with this I believe. If a person has two relaironships and they are equal in this person's eyes, why use the word primary at all. Am I right? I can agree with that because it then leaves the impression that the relationships are not equal.

    Labels suck in all areas of life are times but they are unavoidablebas well. Primary to me is the one whom my life and his are the mist intertwined. I live with my husband and all that entails. that makes that primary. If I lived with both he and my boyfriend in the same way then I'd have two primaries. I don't, however, refer to my husband as primary for the most part. Ibhave a husband and a boyfriend. I am open to both being equal in all areas. However, I am a secondary to the boyfriend in what I feel is the true sense of the word. That means is life is not going to be as intertwined with mine as the hubby's. His choice.

  6. Lovingmorethanone,

    Yes, if the two relationships are equal why use the word Primary? Even more, does using the word Primary to describe both make any sense considering the commonly accepted definition of Primary?

    I partially agree that labels can be bad. When others label you incorrectly, that is bad. What I'm talking about is people applying labels to themselves that contradict the commonly understood definition of the labels. From what you described, you are using the word Primary in the commonly understood manner that makes sense to most people without an extensive explanation. :)

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Thank you dearly for this post. As someone who has read a dictionary, I appreciate it. The comments suggesting that "primary" ought to be semantically hijacked are just embarrassing; I'm honestly not sure how anyone could misunderstand your post. If there are two relationships of equal importance, neither is primary! That's not opinion, it's math! If we're going to embrace this kind of semantic drift, we may as well call polyamory "monogamy". To those who scoff: I've done nothing more laughable than calling two things primary. If you don't want anyone to scoff likewise at you, wise up.

    To the folks who think this notion is out of line: get out a dictionary that lists etymology. Look up "primary" and "prime". ["late 14c., from L. primus "first," from pre-Italic *prismos, superl. of Old L. pri "before," from PIE base *per- "beyond," *pro- "before" (see pre-)."] The word is, specifically and definitionally, concerned at root with placing one first, before all others. And, don't forget, outside of polyamory, the rest of the world is still using this word, meaning that, no, its definition is not about to change because of this new use. If you aren't interested in placing one person first, great! Please, as an English speaker, I beg you: use meaningful terminology to describe those relationships.

    - A Curmudgeon Before His Time

  8. F.A.R.,
    Thanks for the comment and the research!

    Excellent point that outside of polyamory the rest of the world is still using the word Primary so the definition likely won't change simply to accomodate Polyamory.

    Thanks again,

  9. Hiya,

    Well I understand your point PP, except I think the reason why many people still use Primary in as an emotional connection is because it is fair and common to also use Secondary (as Lovingmorethanone says). I still don't understand the issue with its usage but to each their own.

    F.A.R. I think you'll find the history of the English language is littered with changes fostered on by minorities...*ahem* Gay, coloured, black, queer, do you refer to your local country folk as 'Pagan' anymore?..........

  10. Natja,

    Again, I don't have any problem with people using the words Primary, Secondary, etc. to describe their relationship design for whatever reason they choose. I'm simply saying they should use the terms appropriately when they are used rather than arbitrarily redefining them and then complaining when others don't understand how they are using the terms.

    You brought up the word "Pagan" which is another wonderful example. There are a lot of people in my community who identify as pagan. If you ask them what religion they are,they will often answer "Pagan". Well, pagan isn't a religion. Pagan simply means non-Christian and telling someone you are pagan really doesn't tell them much. You could be Hellenic or Druid and be a pagan but the difference between those beliefs is drastic. "Pagan" like "Primary" is being arbitrarily redefined by people, or used inappropriately. What amazes me even more is how many people will defend "pagan" as a religion and get defensive when I point out it simply means non-christian or polytheistic.

    I'm not saying those words shouldn't be used but simply that they should be used appropriately, within generally accepted definitions.


  11. Heh -- I self-identify as "Pagan," because I'm polytheistic and believe that the Divine manifests itself through nature . . . but since I don't follow a particular path laid out by a group or tradition, I think it's the most descriptive term. (If someone asks more detailed questions, I describe myself as being a "syncretist," because my individual practice contains elements from multiple cultures.)

    I also describe myself as "multi-primary-partner poly" -- to me, it refers to emotional primacy and intimacy, rather than living-situation entanglement. For a long time, I was married and lived with my husband, but my primary was another person. (My husband and I have eventually transitioned to being close friends but not in a romantic relationship, although we still currently live together, and plan on staying legally married for the foreseeable future.)

    I have had a relationship that definitely qualified as "secondary" -- I didn't feel the same towards that partner, and there was less commitment and emotional intimacy involved. One of my partners is currently involved in a secondary relationship -- he is very clear that I am his sole primary, and he has chosen to act accordingly (he's very fond of his secondary, but she isn't his girlfriend.)

    I understand where you're coming from in terms of not trying to muddy the language, but I do think there needs to be a way of saying "I love my partners equally." Since you can only legally have one spouse (currently), it's hard not to say things like "wife and girlfriend," and have the former carry more weight than the latter. If you say "These two women are my primary partners," there's more of an equality there.

    Make sense?

    -- A <3

  12. Ashbet, thanks for the comment.

    You said "I understand where you're coming from in terms of not trying to muddy the language, but I do think there needs to be a way of saying "I love my partners equally."."
    I agree completely, I'm just not sure altering the word "Primary" is the best solution.

    Personally I don't believe in hierarchies with my relationships. I view my partners equally. I prefer to introduce them as my "partner" and when asked, I prefer to tell people each of them is my partner. I think that reflects the importance they hold in my life while at the same time avoiding the appearance of hierarchies. Is that better or worse than saying I have multiple primaries? I'm really not sure, but to me it feels more accurate and creates less confusion than applying the Primary label to all of my partners.


  13. I've always said that I don't believe in hierarchies in my relationships, and that my partners are equal in my affections -- but then I found myself in a relationship which was a different tenor from the ones with my primaries, and I had to reluctantly admit to myself that this relationship qualified in many ways as a "secondary" relationship, in terms of my commitment, attachment, and involvement.

    Didn't mean it wasn't lovely while it lasted, but it did give me an insight that I hadn't previously had into the mindsets of people who practice a more hierarchical form of poly.

    (Still isn't the way I prefer to interact -- in the end, I ended the relationship because I really preferred maintaining my relationships with my primary partners to putting the time and energy into a relationship that wasn't on the same level, and wasn't going to develop into a primary relationship over time.)

    I don't normally introduce anyone as a "primary" partner (I refer to them as "my partners," "my Dearly Beloveds," "my boyfriend," "my girlfriend," etc.), but if I'm speaking about my situation in the abstract, I may use the term to signify that the relationships are of equal importance and dedication.

    Because two of my partners are married to each other and we're (majorly) long-distance, it's easy for people to assume that I'm a secondary-level partner to them, or they aren't as important to me as someone who I spend more day-to-day time with . . . so my use of "primary" also is intended to reinforce that this is a relationship that I'm invested in for the long term, that they are my family, that their daughter is a daughter-of-my-heart to me, and that just because we don't live in the same time zone, it doesn't mean that we aren't willing to move heaven and earth to be together in every way that we can.

    (I know I'm going off on a slightly personal tangent, but I'm just trying to explain what the term means to me, in the context of my relationships.)

    It's partly because of the assumptions people make if they aren't corrected -- I share a roof with my former-husband-but-still-family, but he hasn't been a primary partner to me in many years. Some people would insist that we HAD to be "primary" because we lived together, but that didn't reflect the reality of my situation.

    I do agree that choosing another word might be optimal . . . but hopefully it won't be as skin-crawlingly cutesy as "frubbly"! ;)

    -- A <3

  14. Ashbet, thanks for the follow-up!

    It sounds like you have made a very conscious decision to use the term "Primary" and try to do so in a logical manner. I respect that and think that is more unique than you realize.

    I know exactly what you mean about the "secondary" relationship you had opening your eyes to hierarchies. I too became involved as a Secondary at one time and used the Primary/Secondary labels for a short time because it was appropriate. I also found a respect for people who have relationship hierarchies. But in those cases the Primary/Secondary labels are usually necessary and appropriate.

    I'm with you, "frubbly" can go away anytime!


  15. PP,

    Pagan means country dweller, that is the original meaning, it doesn't actually mean non-Christian, you have, ironically enough, illustrated what I was saying. Words can be changed and used incorrectly and the new meaning can eventually over ride the old meaning. Pagan, as it is now currently used, refers to people who follow an earth based and/or pre-Christian religious tradition, it is an umbrella term, but is no less a representative term than a person describing themselves as 'christian' so in effect you are incorrect by dismissing the claims of modern day Pagans, they are giving you a correct term, they are just not giving you as much information as you 'want'.

  16. Natja, I appreciate your continued discussion on this point. Although I don’t think we will ever agree I am enjoying the discussion.

    Wikipedia aside (because it is just sooo accurate), most current dictionaries to my knowledge include the definitions of Pagan as both country dweller and the follower of a polytheistic religion. There are arguments of which definition actually came first but I believe you to be correct. My understanding was that pagan originally meant country dweller but that it soon changed to mean basically “non-Christian” as those in the country often didn’t regularly attend church in the towns. Again, that is my understanding based on my own readings and may or may not be completely accurate.

    At any rate, I will gladly stand corrected on the original definition of the word “pagan”. You then said “you have, ironically enough, illustrated what I was saying. Words can be changed and used incorrectly and the new meaning can eventually override the old meaning.”
    I agree completely. The word pagan has changed and the new meaning is overriding the old meaning. This is evidenced by current dictionary definitions. You said “it is an umbrella term” and again I agree, though I think most would have the common sense to answer a question about their religion with something other than an umbrella term. You also said “they are giving you a correct term, they are just not giving you as much information as you 'want'.” I agree with you somewhat given that an “umbrella term” is being used however, I hear “pagan” as an answer to the question “What religion are you?” yet most pagans freely admit that Pagan isn’t a religion at all, it is a classification of religion.

    All of that aside, I actually think you are proving my point in the original article. The word “pagan” is very possibly being used correctly *by current dictionary definitions*. However, the point I was making in the original article is that the word Primary is not being used correctly when measured against the current dictionary definitions.

    From the Free Online Dictionary, the first 4 definitions of Primary:
    1. First or highest in rank, quality, or importance; principal.
    2. Being or standing first in a list, series, or sequence.
    3. Occurring first in time or sequence; earliest.
    4. Being or existing as the first or earliest of a kind; primitive.

    None of those make any mention or allowance for multiples in the position of Primary. Something which seems to be common with the use of “Primary” in the poly community as of late.

    If use of the word Pagan is conforming to current definitions, then most obviously usage of the word Primary as mentioned in my article is not conforming to current definitions.


  17. From Merriam-Webster:

    Etymology: Middle English pagan "heathen," from Latin paganus (same meaning), from earlier paganus "person who lives in a rural area," from pagus "village, district"
    1 : HEATHEN 1
    2 : a person who is not religious
    - pagan adjective
    - pa·gan·ism /-gschwa-secondarystressniz-schwam/ noun
    Word History In ancient Rome a person living in a rural area or village was called paganus, a word derived from the Latin noun pagus, meaning "village, district." In time paganus came to refer to a civilian as opposed to a soldier. When Christianity became generally accepted in the towns and cities of the empire, paganus was used to refer to a villager who continued to worship the old gods. Christians used the term for anyone not of their faith or of the Jewish faith. The word in Old English for such a person was what is now heathen. In the 14th century, English borrowed the Latin paganus as pagan, and used it with the same meaning. In time both heathen and pagan also took on the meaning of "a person having no religion."

    (Note that "no religion" generally equaled "not Christian," because plenty of "pagans" did adhere to their traditional beliefs.)

    One of my Dearly Beloveds spent ten years owning an occult bookshop, and he can be incredibly articulate about this stuff -- and occasionally utterly scathing when it comes to people insisting that they're following "Ye Olde Ways" when they're actually practicing something like Gardnerian Wicca.

    (Not that there's a problem with that, but claiming that it's an ancient tradition that goes back thousands of years is provably inaccurate, and it would be nice for people to just admit "Hey, we're doing our best to reconstruct certain aspects of traditional beliefs that appeal to us, but we AREN'T practicing exactly the same religion as people in ancient times.")

    (Somewhat of a digression, but I do rather love those articles! And, yes, they do address your point of using exact language to maintain consistent meanings.)

    -- A :)

  18. Ashbet, thanks for posting that. I looked at several dictionary definitions for pagan, including MW I thought, and none were that detailed.


  19. Ashbet,
    P.S. Awesome articles! I'm going to share these with some OTO folks I know.


  20. Glad you liked!

    This is a pet project of his -- he loves debating word origins, etymology, and history/mythology/spirituality, so it's a damn good thing I like to do the same ;)

    Best wishes,

    -- A <3