Why descriptions are better than labels

Arnold Schwarzenegger had sex with a woman who was not his wife, and that woman gave birth to their child. What should the woman in the Schwarzenegger saga should be called?

So far, most of the mainstream media have preferred a description along the lines of “the housekeeper who bore Schwarzenegger’s child.” But let’s face it: That takes up too much space, accurate though it might be, especially in the constrained real estate of headlines. Instead of a description, many outlets, use a one- or two-word label.

One problem with labels is that they are more susceptible to connotations than descriptions. “He votes mostly with conservative blocs in Congress,” for example, simply describes what he does; “he’s a right-winger” calls him names. And so far, none of the “labels” for the “other woman” seem to be quite right. (Even “the other woman” is probably inaccurate: If reports are to be believed, there were several “other women.”)
These are among the labels that have already been applied to the mother of Schwarzenegger’s out of-wedlock child:

Mistress: The label “mistress” calls up images of the woman and man stealing away from their respective homes to meet clandestinely. But “mistress” also has the implication of a relationship that was more than sexual. Whether that label fits in this case is open to interpretation, but there’s not much indication that the “relationship” was anything more than employment with benefits.

Lover: Because it includes the word “love,” this term evokes a romantic liaison. Some people use the term for anyone they’ve had sex with, but it still implies more than a physical relationship. Was she his lover? Technically, yes, but apparently not emotionally.

Paramour: Now we’re getting away from conversational usage. “Paramour” is like “lover”—it even contains the French word for “love”—but has a more exotic air. The word appears more often in romance novels than in news reports, though, and we should keep it that way.

Consort :Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “consort” as “a partner; companion,” but calls that usage obscure. Its next definition is “a wife or husband; spouse, esp. of a reigning king or queen.” So that doesn’t fit, either.

The regal references continue with courtesan and concubine , both of which have been used in reference to the housekeeper. A “courtesan,” WNW says, is “a prostitute; esp., a mistress of a king, or a man of wealth or nobility.” There’s no question that Schwarzenegger is a man of wealth, if not nobility, but to call the woman a prostitute is unfair and inaccurate. “Concubine,” defined as a common-law spouse, is also inaccurate; a second meaning, “a secondary wife, of inferior social and legal status,” stretches the truth as well.

Baby mama : Enough said.

Of course, there are few names for a man in this kind of relationship: Schwarzenegger is certainly an “adulterer,” but there is no sexual parity here, labelwise.

To avoid the connotation trap, referring to the housekeeper simply as “the housekeeper” or “the woman” is the safer bet.

To say that the housekeeper and Schwarzenegger “had an affair” is accurate and descriptive, but not a label for either one of them. And while it remains unclear how long or frequent the relationship was, it is certainly an affair to remember.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,