Real Living: Love you for ever, Death Breath

How does a modern girl refer to her beau? By some biting nickname if she's got any style, says Hettie Judah
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Indy Lifestyle Online
This Wednesday evening the British public will be thrown headlong into the much-hyped world of Sex In The City. All the major characters are female, but don't let that put you off; this is a gang of gels who would quite happily discuss the finer points of sexual technique over their cornflakes, were they ever to do anything so mundane as munch breakfast cereal.

But over and above the sex talk, what's most interesting about the latest American import is the fact that the male characters barely get a look in. They are reduced to a kind of objectified two-dimensional reality, becoming nothing more than sub-characters in stories in which the girls take centre stage.

This idea is reinforced by the fact that very few of them are actually given their real names. Instead, they are wheeled out as a cardboard cast which includes "Toxic Bachelor", "Mr Too-young", "Jon-without-an- H", "The twenty-something guy" and "Mr Big".

This nicknaming is not just a cutesy conceit on the part of the scriptwriters; indeed, the idea was used much more fully in Candace Bushnell's columns, upon which the series is based.

In print the stories brim with names such as "Van Horny", "Narcissus" and others of that ilk, the reason for this be-ing, of course, that the column was based on her real life friends. Even if somebody is the biggest arse in the world, it would take a true bitch to refer to that person in print as "John Patterson who lives at 12 Hyndland Road" rather than "Death Breath". Legal niceties aside, the name-calling helps the reader differentiate between characters; anyone can forget a name like John, but "Death Breath" somehow has an unforgettably poetic ring to it.

As anyone with a group of sexually predatory female friends will corroborate, it is a technique used by many a girl group as they sit around gassing about their love lives. Men may come and go, but somehow tags such as "Psycho", "Kafka", "Randy Alexander", "Porkchop", "Cat's Penis", "Fortinbras" and "Dr Evil" live on, forever. Effective as it is as a storytelling tool, this name-calling also acts as a badge of intimate sorority, a kind of secret language. By objectifying the men in this way, they are effectively belittled; the woman telling the story is in control of what occurs between them.

Because only the women of the group are party to the names, there is a bond that excludes the men they are sleeping with; in other words, the ties of friendship between the women are more important and binding than those between the women and the men. Since the names are encoded, intimate details can be discussed in public while those about them, even the men involved, will have no idea of what is being said about whom.

Beyond the bonding mechanisms, nickname chat surely has some root in the confusion of sexual status amongst twenty- and thirty-something women. We are experiencing something of a linguistic hiatus when it comes to discussing the modern relationship. How should one correctly refer to, y'know, that other person, particularly if they haven't been on the scene for that long? "Partner" seems nauseatingly formal and right on, "boyfriend" too Pollyannaesque for words. "Lover" sounds like you're gloating, and actually calling someone by their real name not only presumes that everyone will remember who they are, but is also likely to give rise to appalling confusion, given the proliferation of Steves, Daves, Sams and Charlies.

Dylan Morran used to settle for "the person with whom I hang around most", but that seems a little long-winded for everyday use. I'm currently quite fond of "main squeeze" although that could be because it seems to leave space for a number of peripheral squeezes.

The alternative seems to be a recourse to variations on old man pub-speak: "him indoors", "the old trout" and so on. But it hardly seems to convey the correct level of novelty, and quivering excitement seems to be out of the question.

Anyway, enough of all that. I'm off out to dinner with, erm, that male person with whom I often spend Friday evenings and occasionally talk on the telephone. You know, Mr Martini. Yep, that's the one.

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