DEAR MISS MANNERS: Am I the only one who finds this phenomenon confusing?
"Miss Lucy Bainbridge and her fiance of 5 years, Mr. Michael Bagley, wish to announce the arrival of a baby boy, Sweetums Bainbridge-Bagley."
Are women these days, living with a partner without the benefit of marriage, playing fast and loose with the term "fiance"? Are they just cockeyed optimists, waiting each Valentine's Day for a ring? Has there been a lot of talk about marriage and no action? I always thought having a fiance went right along with having a ring and a date. Can one be called a fiance year after year?
GENTLE READER: Long ago, when pseudo-marriages first became openly admitted and widespread, Miss Manners asked her Gentle Readers for help in devising a presentable term by which each person in such an arrangement could refer to the relationship with the other.
She is sorry to say that although she was flooded with suggestions, many of them were not presentable. Those that were not lewd or downright nasty were hopelessly complicated or pure treacle.
And the presentable ones used words that meant something else. One of them was "partner." She didn't choose that one (the truth is that she got discouraged and didn't choose anything) but society did.
It spread, and Miss Manners soon got caught in the very confusion she had predicted. She was about to invite an interesting acquaintance to dinner when he mentioned how happy he was with his new partner. As she was amending the invitation in her mind to include the partner -- the hard part was avoiding a gender-specific pronoun -- the gentleman happened to mention his wife.
Now, Miss Manners is not given to snooping into people's living arrangements, but she does need to know how many people are coming to dinner. It took her a great deal of conversational maneuvering before she discovered that the gentleman's domestic life was not as hectic as she supposed. He had one wife and one business partner.
Perhaps similar confusion has inspired the widespread use of "fiance" and "fiancee" among those without marriage plans. Perhaps they believe it sounds more grown-up or more serious. Or just more French.
In any case, it is now widely used, as you have observed, for arrangements that do not seem to be moving along to marriage. Confusing, yes. But minimally so, Miss Manners would say, as neither long engagements nor broken engagements are new, and these arrangements do sometimes lead to marriage.
Anyway, she has no better term to suggest.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: If a 90-year-old known-to-be-senile person asks, "Is today Sunday?" is it rude to answer, "All day"? My husband claims that it's not, but I feel it's being sarcastic.
How do you feel about this?
GENTLE READER: Normally, Miss Manners doesn't probe the feelings of those whose surface behavior is polite. But with behavior toward someone unable to judge it -- making faces at a blind person would be another example -- motivation counts. So if he thinks this is funny, then it is rude. (And if he doesn't, he wouldn't insist on repeating it.)