To fiancée or not to fiancée?

There’s a bit of confusion about around the words fiancé and fiancée, and with good reason.

Now the simple way to clear things up would be simply to say that fiancé is masculine, and fiancée is feminine. Simples. Case closed. Class dismissed. If you have genitals that go into your body instead of poking out of it, compensate by making the word longer, right? Well, no. Language is social, and as society has changed, these words have fallen into the no-man’s-land that borders misogynistic gendering! Cue the Jaws theme.

The situation is made ever more complex by the fact that although the two words have exactly the same pronunciation, each language they’re used in pronounces them differently! In French, the last syllable takes the emphasis; in English, the penultimate syllable usually gets it.

To understand what the big deal is, we have to look at what that extra e means. In case the little accent above the first e doesn’t make it obvious, fiancé and fiancée are French words. And, contrary to popular belief; in French, these two words don’t principally distinguish between masculine and feminine. They distinguish between the agent and the object (or the doer and the done-to). The masculine and feminine alignment has more to do with the traditional roles of the two parties, and as we will see, it may hold true: but it doesn’t sit comfortably with twenty-first century values.

Both French and English use the suffix -ee on nouns to mark the object of the sentence (the person or thing that something is done to). If you have addressed an envelope, the person you’ve addressed it to is the addressee: the addressee doesn’t have to do anything, the envelope just comes to them. If my car breaks down and you tow me, I don’t exert effort because I am the towee. And we all know, if your partner dumps you, you are the dumpee; there may be some crying involved, but you are the object, and not the agent. So, if your partner proposes marriage and you accept, you are the fiancée, regardless of your gender.

Both fiancé and fiancée are derived from the Latin root fidare: a promise or trust. The fiancé is the truster, and the fiancée the trustee. When applied to a betrothal, the fiancée is engaged to the fiancé, not the other way around. There’s no question of who is active in such a relationship, and in the twenty-first century, that starts to feel anachronistic.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, when these words entered the English language, this was de rigueur. A woman might be engaged to a man, but this was not generally of her doing: it was done to her, or for her, or possibly with some consultation about her preferences; but she did not do it herself. That might have been fine even as little as 50 years ago, but I think we’ve moved on a bit.

It’s confusing enough for gay couples, but for lesbian couples it makes even less sense to use the conventionally-feminine word: if you do, both fiancées are passive participants! The word fiancée in this scenario is semantically incorrect. At least one must be a fiancé, but I would argue that in most engaged Australian couples in this century, regardless of their genders, both are, in semantic fact, fiancés.

Actually, for an authorised celebrant, who has a legal and ethical responsibility to ensure both parties to every marriage are giving their consent to the marriage, the idea of marrying a fiancé to a fiancée sits rather uncomfortably (at least for those of us with a background in linguistics and a penchant for being a bit particular about English and French). If one is the ‘betrother’ and the other is the ‘betrothee’, we are making significant assumptions about the consent of the ‘betrothee’.

I want to suggest we drop this fiancée word altogether.

There is simply no need for a linguistic distinction between a male and a female person who is engaged to be married, and since the conventionally-feminine version carries the stigma of misogyny, I think it can simply be dispensed with to put us all on an equal footing.

Published by Trevar Alan Skillicorn-Chilver

Trevar Alan Skillicorn-Chilver is an authorised celebrant, a playwright, a teacher and quite a few other things!

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