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We Only Have One Word to Describe an ‘Ex,’ and That Sucks

Why doesn’t our language match our complex romantic relationships?

“Basically anyone can be an ex,” says Corey, 26. “If we dated, you’re my ex. If you used to retweet me a lot but stopped, you’re also my ex.” Caroline, 30, uses a similarly broad definition of the term for the sake of expediency. “I just call everyone my ex until it’s time to elaborate because, yeah, there isn’t a word for this. ‘Ex’ rolls off the tongue easier than ‘someone I dated for three months, but we were never official.’”

If you find this confusing, you’re not alone.

Language only works if all parties involved in a conversation agree in at least a general way on what words mean, which is why the persistence of “ex” as a catch-all for everything from “that one-night stand” to “my former wife” seems due for a shakeup. Everyone has their own definition of who rises to the level of an ex, and those ideas vary so widely that the word circles back around to mean absolutely nothing in casual conversation.

I expected millennials in particular to tend toward “ex” elasticity because a generation that’s delaying marriage more than any other probably has more not-quite-relationships than it has words to describe them. But plenty of the 35-and-under crowd were strict in their conceptions. Elizabeth, 33, doesn’t even apply the term to her past serious boyfriends. “I only use it for my ex-fiancé. For others I dated (even for a year or more), I’ll say, ‘My serious high school boyfriend,’ or ‘This guy I dated in college.’” Meredith, 31, uses the word sparingly to avoid potential embarrassment. “I live in fear that some dude I had a thing with will pop out of nowhere if I call them an ex and be like, ‘Uh, we weren’t dating,’ so I shamefacedly say, ‘Dude I had a thing with’ to describe many mistakes.”

Meanwhile, my own use of “ex” indicates a level of acrimony. No matter how briefly we were involved, if you caused me trouble, you’re my ex. If we parted amicably, I tend to reach for “a guy I used to date,” even if we were living together. When I was in my early 20s, everyone was “a guy I used to date” because “ex” felt like it implied emotional failure to which I wasn’t ready to admit in casual company.

The word “ex” means so much that it effectively means nothing.

And so, we need more vocabulary — a word for people we used to hook up with, and one for people we dated but with whom we were never exclusive, at the very least — in order to obviate the need for clumsy descriptors of specific situations that could easily be replaced with a couple additions to the vernacular.

Handy slang terms aren’t something young people often desire. The labyrinth of youth culture on the internet evolves at hyper speed, spitting out new concepts and phrases like a self-referential perpetual motion machine as soon as social culture cleaves far enough from tradition to make space for something new. When a word or phrase has the right combination of cleverness and usefulness, the barrier for it to become part of the popular lexicon is lower than it’s ever been because the internet nullifies distance between speakers and crowdsourced references like Urban Dictionary circumvent traditional linguistic gatekeepers. “Sexting,” for example, became a common term basically as soon as picture messaging between phones was widely possible; “selfies” had a name as soon as they had a prominent place on the internet; “ghosting” was a thing once we realized scads of people were getting dumped by simply never being spoken to again.

So why are the fuckbuddy who moved to an inconvenient part of town and the cheating spouse you divorced both still just exes in the popular imagination?

This is the point at which I was hoping to get cute, coin a few terms, solve a rhetorical problem you didn’t know you had and reap the clicks that go along with being on the bleeding edge of social phenomena. Except I’ve been thinking about this for weeks, and not a single passably useful option has popped into my head.

I asked everyone I interviewed if they had any slang terms they used with friends to refer to former hookups or casual romances that have since ended, and beyond a couple joke responses, nobody had anything. The opacity of “ex” began to feel less like a bug and more like a feature. Otherwise, someone surely would’ve gotten to this before me, right?

For clarification, I spoke with Indiana University’s Michael Adams, an English language historian and lexicographer. “‘Ex’ starts out in the early 19th century for anyone who’s no longer a part of something he or she once was — it was a general term,” he tells me. “If you used to be a Roman Catholic, someone could refer to you as an ‘ex.’ This general sense persists well into the 20th century, though I haven’t noticed it much recently, maybe because of the rise of romantic (or ex-romantic) ‘ex.’”

In that sense, maybe the way we use “ex” in so-called hookup culture is truer to the word’s original meaning than it ever has been in romantic use. The implication is simply that someone once took part in something, but no longer does. What, exactly, they were taking part in depends on context and the speaker’s willingness to elaborate. If they don’t want to, ex can stand on its own. “Practically all adjectives have vagueness built in: How tall? How thin? How high?” Adams says. “We hedge or distract ourselves and others from specificity, because, as you say, being direct about it might prove uncomfortable. When we get tired of describing, we’ll fill the lexical gap.”

That doesn’t mean the internet’s amateur lexicographers aren’t on the case of “ex,” though. As Adams points out, Urban Dictionary’s top definition for the term gets at the exact paradox of how we refer to the people we used to fuck, love or maybe both: “1) Someone who will have sex with you when nobody else will. 2) Someone who won’t speak to you even when everyone else will.”

And maybe that’s just fine.

After all, if the internet at large is letting the word stand, there has to be a reason.

Which brings me to a 2016 Psychology Today post about how divorced women commonly used “ex” to refer to their former husbands instead of their names in order to depersonalize a traumatic change in the relationship. If the thing that hurt you isn’t specific, if it’s just the past, then maybe it’s done hurting. In that way, maybe “ex” is perfect. The listener makes assumptions based on their own conception of the word, which means the person talking gets to duck for cover. Or maybe it sucks to admit the person you’re still talking about was never your girlfriend anyway, but the vagueness of calling her an ex provides a plausible deniability, retroactively conferring upon her enough status to justify the space she takes up in your head.

In other words, maybe for once in our exceedingly over-verbalized lives, specificity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.