love and war

Why Is the Word Fiancé So Embarrassing?

Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Getty Images

In the past year, I’ve heard the following adjectives used to describe the word fiancé: fancy, snooty, French, formal, precious, pompous, hoity-toity, and — from my closest and judgiest friend — “Who do you think you are?” These days, it seems like everyone I know is going to increasingly absurd lengths to dodge actually using it. Colin, an architect in Nashville who has been married since 2018, told me that during his yearlong engagement he found himself rearranging sentences so that he could say “we’re engaged” instead of calling his future wife his fiancée. Emi, an editor who lives in New York, stuttered through a cycle of labels every time she had to introduce her significant other (“I would call him my boy- my fia- my part- my Aiden”), before doubling down on the weirdness and facetiously introducing him as her “betrothed” — silly voice and all. Another friend, Erica, “tried to use it as little as possible” when she was engaged and, when she couldn’t avoid it, always added an eye roll. In wedding Reddit threads, engaged couples have shared even sillier terms they use to try to deformalize their relationship status: Beyoncé, future husband, pre-husband, ex-boyfriend, slam piece, man possum.

“I just couldn’t get the word fiancé out,” says Elena, who called her fiancé “the guy I’m marrying” while touring a wedding venue in December. The friends who were with her at the time laughed, but when she shared her feelings with other engaged women, they understood. “It seemed like universally, fiancé felt like a glove we were supposed to put on, but it didn’t quite fit,” she says.

Newly engaged couples have been stumbling over the word since at least 2008, when one Jezebel writer linked it to a “smugness about marriage that I find embarrassing.” Blogging brides-to-be sorted it under a “feels too fancy for me” umbrella, called it “snooty” and “uncomfortable,” and wondered if using it was bragging. A string of BuzzFeed rants suggests things got even more fraught right around the time gay marriage was legalized in 2015. Now that we were starting to rethink the institution as something that could be made progressive, maybe it was time to do away with some of its antiquated terms. At that point, most of the people rejecting fiancé found refuge in using the word partner, which has since largely fallen out of favor — a few people recently told me they felt it was reserved for the LGBTQ+ community, while in some other circles it’s just become an annoying straight-person word.

A handful of women admitted to using the word strategically to lend themselves some sort of maturity or legitimacy — in conversations with their boss or wedding planner or when filling out an apartment-lease application. But, as several people pointed out, dropping a French word into the middle of a sentence is embarrassing, no matter how you square it. Other anxieties about deploying the fiancé bomb don’t seem to have changed much since 2008. For Christina, a New York–based editor, revealing that she’s engaged feels like another way of telegraphing, in her words, “We’re in the midst of figuring out how to spend a ton of money.” Erica likened it to “TMI.” It makes strangers feel like they can ask questions that engaged people aren’t necessarily in the mood to answer while, say, buying a chair on Facebook Marketplace. Other women told me they felt like they were bragging if they used the word, even though these days they don’t assume that marriage is everyone’s goal.

And the baggage keeps piling up. Now, fiancé also carries the weight of a bloated, ever-expanding wedding industrial complex that markets itself to every type of bride — even the laid-back kind. Lyndsey, an entrepreneur living in New York, told me she’d rather not voluntarily signal that she’s engaged at all. “I think there’s a stereotype of women who live to get engaged and married and have babies, and that’s their entire identity,” she says. “I’m conscious that bringing it up too much makes me seem like one of those people.” For a lot of women, especially, there’s a concern that, in using the word fiancé, they come across as a wedding-loving, husband-obsessed bridezilla. “There’s this whole category of person that I’m accessing without realizing it,” Christina told me, referring to all the engagement accoutrements — the ring, the Instagram announcement, the new label for her partner. “The scripts that go along with this role of ‘engaged person’ — I’m not sure I want to participate in that.”

Some of those scripts are so deeply ingrained that, no matter how much we resist their tropes, they surface instinctively. “When I first got engaged,” Christina says, “I told my friend about it and did that thing — you can picture the move — where I held my hand in front of her face and showed her the ring. Immediately, I was, like, What am I doing?! It feels like a performance.”

Getting married means choosing, at every step, what pieces of conventional wedding lore you want to buy into — the diamond ring, the white dress, the father-daughter dance — and, for many women, fiancé is like a vector for all the old-fashioned, fussy wedding customs that the newly engaged are trying to navigate. But even as we’ve started to reject the performance of a traditional bride, the wedding industry gave us a new script: the chill, low-key bride. At this point, so many people want to buck traditional wedding aesthetics that “unconventional” nuptials are becoming an outdated cliché. “I see people on TikTok being like, My wedding was unconventional,” Emi says, “and they had, like, a taco bar or wore off-white.”

Christina is skeptical that a new word would even “fix the thing that’s embarrassing for me” about fiancé. Dodging the term is more than just not wanting to sound snobby — it stirs up “my conflicting feelings about weddings and marriage, even though I’m participating in all of it.” Erica echoes that sentiment, noting that she feels similarly queasy about the word husband: “On some level, I’m communicating that I’m a straight white woman who’s participating and upholding these traditional norms.”

Women aren’t the only ones concerned about what people will think when they hear the word coming out of their mouths. Ryan, a New York–based designer who got engaged in 2020, wondered out loud if subconsciously he was worried saying fiancée suggested he “only believed in the traditional ideals of marriage between men and women.” He says he’s seen “a real push to redefine how we attach ourselves to one another,” while “marriage has stayed such a constant. It clearly has evolved, but the language hasn’t.” His fiancée, on the other hand, was more than ready to use the word: “She likes all things French and is a bit fancy.”

Why Is the Word Fiancé So Embarrassing?