Bottom’s Up: Polyamory and Neologisms

The word “neologism” is defined as a new term, word, or phrase that has not yet entered into mainstream use.  Many times, these words are created by people who are seen to be living on the fringes of society – specifically, people with schizophrenia and children.  Because people in both of these categories might be having experiences that differ broadly from those represented in mainstream society, it makes sense that they would feel the need to create new words to describe those experiences.  While these instances refer to people making up words that only make sense to them, almost any group outside of the dominant one (by which I mean white, male, affluent, straight, cisgendered, monogamous men) has words that make sense to them as a group and which relate to their collective experience.  To call these words “slang” is inaccurate, because they aren’t just different names for concepts that already exist – they are words to describe new concepts, or concepts that haven’t been thought worth putting a name to before.

Since this is a column is about polyamory, let’s zoom in a little on words specific to the poly community, or “polycabulary.”  Many of these terms exist to put a name to relationship situations that otherwise would not have a name.  For example, the term “quad” refers to  a polyamorous relationship involving four people. That one-syllable word comes out of the mouth a lot easier than the clunky definition following it.  The term “triad” refers to a poly relationship with three people.  This can be in the form of a “vee” – meaning that A dates both B and C, but B and C do not date each other, or it can be in the form of a “delta,” meaning that A, B, and C all date each other.  These last two terms make a lot of sense because they also provide an easy way to visualize these sorts of poly relationships – as two dimensional shapes.  While this certainly doesn’t capture the complexity of these relationships, it does provide a somewhat accurate way of quickly describing them and also introduces an easy way to conceptualize them.

Let’s move on to another word used among poly people, one which is less logistically functional and more emotionally functional.  “Compersion” refers to “A feeling of joy when a partner invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship… Compersion can be thought of as the opposite of “jealousy;” it is a positive emotional reaction to a lover’s other relationship.[1]”  Compersion is an interesting word because it actually describes a new emotion.  Though someone not in a polyamorous situation might still experience this emotion, it is not something that is at all validated by mainstream society.  In monogamous couples, there would be no reason to feel compersion, as the taking of a new lover by a partner would automatically violate the relationship boundaries, which would probably be a reason for distress in and of itself.

However, this is something that many people in poly situations experience at one point or another.  The idea of compersion goes against most of the things we are taught to feel in relationships, and it goes against the idea that a partner becoming involved with someone else should be viewed as a threat to the pre-existing relationship with that partner.  Though I think it is important to leave space for jealousy in poly situations, and not to try to hide it, it’s also important to give name and validation to other, more positive feelings – especially those we are told to believe literally cannot exist.

There are many reasons that someone might feel compersion.  Some people find that when their partner becomes involved with someone else, it puts less strain on pre-existing relationships and allows them to exist more naturally and with fewer demands.  Personally, though I still experience jealousy, I also feel happy for my partners’ success with other people as I would with a good friend who I was not involved with romantically.  Either way, the creation of words like this can help to cement experiences that are outside of what we see represented in mainstream society.  They can help people to feel less isolated in their situations, by validating their feelings.  Finally, the making up of new words echoes the constant invention of new relationship structures and new ways of living by poly people.  The creation of neologisms celebrates the creativity of these relationships themselves.

[1] Veaux, Franklin.  “Glossary of Polyamory Terms.”  Updated 03/18/13. .  Viewed 03/24/13.

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