Last night I was at a friend’s birthday party. I knew most of the guests there, but only one other guest was someone I’d call a friend. The rest ranged from stranger to fill-in-the-blank. It’s this missing word in the English language. Maybe that word used to be acquaintance, like we all sing about every New Year’s Eve, but today, that doesn’t sound right. It sounds auld. You wouldn’t introduce someone saying, “This is my acquaintance Nancy,” would you? Neither would I. So we say friend, even if we don’t feel like Nancy is our friend. She is just someone we know. We probably like her, and will happily talk to her at a party about what her kids are up to, how her recent vacation was, or whether she got that new job, but we wouldn’t phone her to ask about any of those things. We wouldn’t even text her.
Sometimes it’s easier. We have roommates, schoolmates, teammates, but, at least here in the USA, we don’t call people plain old mates. I wouldn’t introduce Nancy to you as, “This is my mate Nancy.” Those terms all need a frame of reference, and often, there isn’t a handy term available. (If we can’t have a word that falls someplace between friend and acquaintance, could churchmate come into common usage? I have a lot of churchmates.)
If I’m talking to my sister, or my husband, I have used the awkward phrase “friendly acquaintance.” They know I don’t really have hordes of friends, and this saves them the bother of wondering which of my five friends I am not naming. If you’re wondering how this sounds in conversation, it goes like this: “A friendly acquaintance told me last week that a hawk was circling over her yard, stalking her chihuahua.” As I said, awkward phrasing, but if I said friend, they’d ask which of my friends got a chihuahua. If I said Nancy told me…” they’d ask who Nancy was, wondering if I had made a new friend. Then we would be talking about my lack of a social life instead of the abundance of predatory birds in the area and the danger to small, but loved, animals.
So, we, or at least I, need a new word. Any ideas? Nominations?