Let's not call her sweetheart

The World Bank nepotism episode poses a new problem: What to call adult 'boyfriends' and 'girlfriends'?

The scandal embroiling the World Bank touches on many significant issues – international efforts to combat corruption in the developing world, for one.

At a more mundane level, though, I'd be interested if the whole episode leaves us with a better term to describe Shaha Ali Riza than as Bank president Paul Wolfowitz's "girlfriend." If you're just tuning in: Mr. Wolfowitz and Ms. Riza have been an item for several years. When he arrived at the Bank a couple of years ago, she was already there as an employee.

That meant that in his new role, he would be her supervisor, albeit indirectly. It was clear to all concerned that, given their personal relationship, this new professional relationship would violate Bank rules against nepotism.

(Now there's a good example of a word stretched far beyond its original meaning. Nepotism started out referring to favoritism shown to nephews, especially papal ones, but now covers the territory of improper favors, especially jobs, granted to relatives and friends to the detriment of others.)

A deal was struck to find Riza a rather long-term "temporary" professional home at the US State Department, at a significant salary raise. The circumstances of that deal, Wolfowitz's involvement in it, and its propriety, are now at issue and at the heart of the controversy surrounding his tenure at the Bank. Those are questions that need to be answered.

I'll leave that task to someone else. I will note, though, that Riza is unquestionably a grown-up, professional woman, not a "girl." What is the term for two bona fide grown-ups of opposite sexes who keep company? I suppose the question I'm asking is, What is the adult form of "boyfriend" and "girlfriend"?

As I recall, Miss Manners says that polite society recognizes three statuses for relationships: marriage, engagement, and friendship. In a purely social context, it's fairly easy to sort out the "just friends" kind of friends from the friends on their way to some other status.

In a professional context, on the other hand, the informal clues are often less obvious. And yet a number of people may have good reason to want to know the nature of two people's relationship. Are they casual social acquaintances, or something more?

The New York Times has generally opted decorously for "companion" as its preferred term for Riza in relation to Wolfowitz. It is a word of great nebulosity but no particular romance. It suggests simultaneously various kinds of governesses or chaperons, one of the attendants who hang out with a goddess, and, at the upper reaches of what Miss Manners calls "advanced civilization," the worthy Knights Companion of the Order of the Garter. (Despite its name it is a very respectable organization.) And we shouldn't forget to mention the faithful Fido, lying by his master's feet in front of the fire.

Just over the weekend, I was noticing an airline ad featuring "companion fares." These are common in the travel industry, which uses a broad term to cover just about anyone who comes along with you – spouse, parent, friend, Aunt Tillie. I checked out the two hot tickets in the ad, however, and neither of them looks at all like the Aunt Tillies I know.

Slate has noticed a lapse from the "companion" usage in the news columns of the Times, in favor of "girlfriend": "Upon reading an article this week referring to charges that embattled World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz had 'used his influence to raise the salary of his girlfriend,' veteran New York Times readers in mid-coffee sip could be forgiven for performing a spit-take. The use of the g-word ... was a new frontier for the newspaper."

"Cherchez la femme," they say. But when you find her, will you know what to call her?

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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