The Secret Significance of the Non-Monogamous Lexicon

The people at the party were the type of people who answer a question like What do you think of that wallpaper?‘ with interpretive dance. Singers, actors, performers.

So it wasn’t surprising that when the cake came in, the rendition of Happy Birthday was theatrical. I, being a mere audience member, assumed an appreciative expression and then applauded wildly to cover up my British embarrassment, which in turn was a deeper cover for some residual envy of their glorious freedom of self-expression.

Over pink champagne and exotic aperitifs I chatted with the man of the moment’s boyfriend about ‘sex-positivity’. As you do. But he’d never heard of the term. Unlike me, he’d never had to learn it because he grew up in a sex-positive household, in a sex-positive country, acceptably bisexual and well, fabulous. His relationship is open, as is many of his friends. They don’t need a further label–whether that’s polyamorous, monogamish, swinger–because as Eli Sheff quotes in her Psychology Today article ‘Honey, we invented open relationships and certainly don’t need another label for them.’

Many queer folk do polyamory or are polyamorous, but call it open whilst the cis-het folk who might engage in exactly the same type of behaviour identify with the label polyamorous? Why have we created two different lexicons?  Why wasn’t open–which came first–enough?

Because to be open, was to be shameless…

Etymology is a fascinating study and human beings love labels. As cultural and social identities evolve, we seek ever more precise definitions. But that’s rather a simplistic reason, because our choices and creations of labels reveal deeper motivations. Why in the english language alone, there are usually three different words for the same thing. How do we choose among them?

One is Anglo-Saxon (usually direct, neutral and informal), one French (usually formal and denoting sophistication) and one is clearly derived from Latin or Greek (abstract, usually specialised or technical). Consider luck, fortune and success. The first–anglo-saxon and monosyllabic–has earthy and gutteral notes, the second–french–is aspirational and noble, the third originally meaning ‘happy outcome’ from the latin successus is nowadays much more associated with drive, education and ambition. Our choices, even if unconsciously made, reveal our attitudes, values, education, self-image and purpose1.

Non-monogamous relationships–especially of the ‘secret’ kind–are not a new thing, so terminology for them has been around for centuries. That it should be defined in opposition to monogamy–a negative as opposed to a positive–is telling in itself. Adultery appeared around 1300 derived from old french, which in turn was derived from the Latin adulterare meaning ‘to corrupt.’ Other, usually derogatory words also appear early on. Cuckold for example, deriving from cuckoo–a bird famous for laying its eggs in another’s nest–appeared in literature around Chaucer’s time and was used by him in The Miller’s Tale whilst cuckquean, the female equivalent appeared around 100 years later.

But where the Saxons were blunt and direct, the advent of the French who pervaded the upper echelons of English society, meant that such language was downgraded to the ‘peasant’ language of illiterates. Open comes from old english/anglo-saxon openian meaning to open, open up, disclose, or reveal, but also meant “exposed, evident, well-known, public,” often in a bad sense, “notorious, shameless.” To be open, was to be shameless2.

Similarly the word gay has had connotations of promiscuity and immorality since Chaucer’s time and by the 19th century the term ‘a gay house’ was used to mean brothel before it became slang for homosexual. Perhaps then, open did just fine for the queer community who defied prevailing rigidity and cocked a snook at normative society, but less so for the mainstream population who might have envied the freedom of the open lifestyle of their queer counterparts, but still wanted to be regarded as acceptable. They chose a more respectable and more seemingly academic term to lend legitimacy to their behaviour. Maybe, the invention of the word polyamory was an unconscious intention to create distance from the queer community…

  • Polyamory: Respectable and Responsible

In my broad and admittedly highly skewed sample of poly/open folk, most I’ve encountered have migrated over from a sex-negative world which means there’s a lot of deprogramming to do. Yet the first stage of deprogramming is the thin end of the wedge; it’s usually to simply add another long term loving relationship,  aka. monogamy + one. There’s still some sex-negativity to encounter, but in the end it’s acceptable. Because it’s about long-term love, not indiscriminate one night stands (and sounds rather respectably mathematical). Which means it might be borne itself of sex-negativity.

Thus polyfidelity was coined by the Kerista Village Commune (1971-91) and highlighted that trust, faithfulness and morality could still exist even within multi-partner relationships. The term polyamory quickly followed coined by Morning Glory Ravenheart, in her May 1990 article “A Bouquet of Lovers” in which she promoted the concept of responsible group marriage. Notably she, like me, also came from a very strict protestant upbringing. Like me, she grew up in a sex-negative household; she abandoned her birth name Diana (the virgin huntress), precisely because she didn’t like the ‘chastity’ requirement demanded of Diana’s followers.

What other word might she have chosen for her clan’s philosophy? The term polygamy was coined in the late 15th century but largely due to the fact that society is and was patriarchal, polygamy–which was too closely associated with the hierarchy of one man-many women and contractual possession of women as chattel–was less useful at describing Morning Glory’s vision of a loving responsible configuration.

She could also have stuck with greek etymology–not poly-filia, as several internet memes jokingly suggest because filia means the love of friendship and even worse to mainstream minds, is used to describe inclinations considered perversions–but ‘poly-eros’. Eros is the greek for love, mainly of sexual passion, but to my formerly sex-negative ears that borders a little to closely on erotic. Maybe she thought so too. So whilst polyamory adequately captures what the Zell-Ravenhearts practised, perhaps Morning Glory also defined it thus because it distances polyamory practioners from the perceived negativity of casual sex, even if many polyamorists embrace sexual freedom. Like us all, Morning Glory was a product of her environment. Just as when I came out to my family, she cannily distinguished her behaviours from the rather subconsciously tainted open, by reframing it in an academic language softened by love.

Yet the term polyamory has since evolved. Back then it came with hierarchy, a veto in the initial period–defined by Morning Glory as a year and a day–and the need for all partners to prefer polyamory. Today we find that poly-mono relationships with good communication can work successfully and that modern day flavours of western ethics may well eschew old ideas of veto and hierarchy.

Still the notions of hierarchy baked within the original definition of polyamory persist and the term relationship anarchy was coined in 2006 by Swedish Activist Andie Nordgren. Perhaps as a reaction to these lingering echoes, perhaps also that polyamory was too highfalutin for the Swedes who live in a largely classless society and whose language still sounds to foreigners what Ralph Waldo Emerson once described as the ‘speech of brash bitter waters’. Polyamory rolls off the tongue in soft consonants, whereas anarchy (or anarki) is more reminiscent of their Nordic diction.

As my own vision of what polyamory means to me has evolved, my preferred lingo is relationship fluid. It has become ‘the capacity to build ethical intimate relationships in the form that they organically flow.’ Whether thats emotional intimacy, mental intimacy or physical intimacy. Whether that’s in parallel, integrated with the family, separate or sequential. It has less of the political implications of anarchy itself, and even less of the ‘anything–even cheating–goes’ that some hardcore relationship anarchists practice. And then there’s the word fluid itself. It has no negative connotations, it comes from the Latin fluidus–capable of flowing–and is also the source of the word flumen, latin for river. It symbolises journey, freedom and the humble admission that we have no knowledge of where life’s tide may take us and how we might ebb and flow, in the future.


1.The Secret Life of Words: How English became English, Henry Hitchings

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