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Anthropology: The Evolution of the Language of Dating 

Dating is something commonly discussed by everyone – children in the playground asking who likes who, me and my friends during late-night sleepovers, adults on the internet sharing their dating horror stories. It is an exciting, common topic. There is drama, characters, and an exciting story of language. However, during this discourse about dating, a common thread occurred. From my friends and stories online about dating and Tinder hookup stories, the same story seemed to be repeated over and over again. In the cisheterosexual dating culture, it seems that a boy and a girl would meet, go on dates, be physically intimate, and express their deepest emotions – but no committed relationship. 

Is Dating Too Hard Nowadays?

A lot of my friends felt as if it was their fault for being too overbearing with the boy. And this cycle isn’t a singular experience. I think of Summer Walker’s 2019 album, Over It, on repeat that year. I began to think that the ambiguity of dating language was the problem. If you tried to explain this millennial/Gen Z dating language, it probably wouldn’t make sense to someone from a different generation. How can there be a word for “doing everything a relationship entails, but not calling it a relationship until no one knows what to call it”? 

Language of Romantic Social Life

Because of the seeming lack of relationships and the rise of ambiguous hookups, more people refer to their dates as “this person I was talking to” because so many people don’t feel as if they deserve the word “ex” to describe an ex-relationship they had with a person who is no longer in their lives. I felt the same way about my past – I didn’t want to use the word ‘ex’ because that word was reserved for relationships and if you weren’t in a relationship, then you weren’t allowed the privilege of using the word ‘ex’. It seemed as if you weren’t allowed to grieve the loss of someone in your life. 

Where does all this ambiguity come from? Is there a way to escape the modern idea of dating? Has it always been this way? Older people would say this trend of situationships and modern dating has changed for the worse. However, there is a deeper and layered history of the language of dating. And it is not as clear-cut as we would like. 

Dating: A Recent Phenomenon

two people in the background of smartphone and they are reaching out towards each other
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When we look back in history, it would appear that dating was more clear-cut. Boy meets girl, they go on a date, they start dating, a relationship. On Friends, the characters would go on a date and it was casual if they liked that person, they would continue in a relationship and if they didn’t, they would end their dates. Dating seems so much simpler than the complicated talking/situationships of today. College hook-ups are overruling the dating market. However, this is not the case. 

In Moira Weigels’ “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating”, she clarifies this perception by emphasizing that dating has always been ambiguous. At the start of the book, she mentions that humans have “always had courtship rituals. They have not all had dating”. Dating is a new phenomenon that has slowly started over the last hundred years. The romanticized courtship of the past has conflated dating with modern culture and the media and I took the bait. But it seems that I wasn’t the only one, “On January 11, 2013, The New York Times…headline was ‘The End of Courtship?’ Citing conversations from several East Coast cities, the paper of record announced that ‘hookups’ and ‘hang-outs’ had replaced the ritual of the date” (Moira). 

The History of Dating and Language

A black and white photo of an old couple, probably from the 60s, sharing a soda
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In Moira’s book, she goes through the history of dating to clarify that dating is recent and argues her point that dating has always been a messy, ambiguous situation. She first separates courtship and dating. She subverts the mainstream narrative that “the death of dating” is occurring in the modern age. The idea of a date, of two people coming together and eating at a restaurant in pursuit of love, was never traditional. 

Historical courtship was a period where a couple would get to know each other through marriage, but this did not necessarily include romantic interest. Marriage was a political tool to bring two families together. It was supervised by family members to see what would suit their needs the best.

Traditional Roles of Past

Modern, individual dating for romance and not for familial growth, is a new phenomenon that started in the 1900s. And during this time, it was not seen as traditional or romantic. During the 1900s, the word ‘date’, defined as a man paying for a woman’s food and activities for her companionship, was reserved for ‘whores’ and prostitutes. Many of these female ‘daters’ were seen as scandalous and morally wrong. 

As more and more people left farms for cities to look for work, American women were “working outside their homes…unmarried” (Moira) where they could interact with men in an unsupervised setting during their walks and commutes. Young people were no longer supervised, leading them to an unsupervised, individual, romantic date. This is when dating begins and the historical, familial-centered courtship ends.  

Additional History of Courtship

These dates were originally reserved for the lower class, such as “store employees, telephone girls, stenographers” who found out that being charming, flirtatious, and provocative gave them a better time at work. However, the upper class saw these women as prostitutes and saw dating as a morally loose activity. This is reflected in early dating language and slang, such as “picking up” a girl reflecting an object to purchase – which continues in American English dating slang such as “damaged goods” or “dating market”. 

As time goes by, the line “between sex work and ‘legitimate’ dating has remained difficult to draw and impossible to police”, proving the ambiguity in every aspect of dating. It was more likely 1920s college students who went out to unsupervised dinners and dances. It was seen as scandalous but eventually normalized. Despite the act of dating for romantic pursuit being only created in the last hundred years, “authorities like The New York Times refer to dating in this time period as ‘traditional’”. Moira emphasizes that dating has always been ambiguous and people refer to the past as more structured when, in reality, it has always been a confusing mess of feelings and people. 

The Puzzle of Romantic Stages and Language

Even in the earliest time of dating, the language was just as ambiguous as “situationships” and “talking stages”. As dating became more mainstream, “cities filled with venues to go out in”. This “going out” does not have a clear definition. It was just as uncertain as today. Eventually, couples would say they were “going steady”, which implied commitment but still depended on individual definitions. Some “steadies” were thinking of marriage, others saw it as short summer flings or something you only did in high school. Or women would feel the need to be in relationships to protect themselves from unwanted advances. Dating eventually trickled down from the early 1900s socialites and college students to small-town youths in the 1940s. Moreover, dating was no longer the scandal it was with shopgirls. 

Additionaly, dating eventually began to be normalized and integrated within the culture. Some things have changed though. Such as the clarity of ‘going out’ where youth would literally meet people outside. Due to advancements in technology, dating encompasses the internet. You can stay inside, talking to potential love interests, in the comfort of your own home. What does it mean to “go out” in an era where people meet each other online? 

Dating Today

A college couple smiling together as they lean in.
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While older people today think romance is dead and “often point to college ‘hookup culture’ as the culprit that killed it” and want to either return to this mythological traditional dating, it is important to recognize that dating has always been ambiguous. 

Technology has allowed even more ambiguity because we don’t need to go out or stay in, you can ‘go out’ with someone inside, which creates the need for a new language to accommodate technology within our dating lives. The “talking stage” is a phrase that arose around the 2000s and 2010s alongside dating apps and the rise of online messaging. It most likely arose due to the term ‘going out’ no longer suiting the scope of modern dating. In the Urban Dictionary, one person defines it as “when two people basically flirt and start feeling each other and they are just slowly getting into a relationship”, which sounds very similar to the Wikipedia definition of dating. The Wikipedia definition is a “stage of romantic relationships whereby two people meet socially with the aim of each assessing the other’s suitability as a prospective partner in a future intimate relationship”. Essentially, dating still exists, just as ambiguous as in the past, but language continues to evolve to adapt to the new culture/ world and practices of dating.  

Continued Modern Romantic Relationships

Modern culture today emphasizes work, which reflects dating culture. Most people push off dating due to being too busy or saying that they need to focus on their careers. Dating advice online reflects all these changes. The ‘necking’ and ‘outings’ of college students of the past have been changed to ‘hooking up’ and ‘talking’ the college students now. Hook-up could mean anything from watching a movie or sleeping with someone after a fraternity party. It is discrete and messy, just like the activities the term Language is referring to. 

New dating apps and sites have mostly replaced the bars and parties people used to go to. A great thing about dating apps is that they open up dating to people all over the world who do not have time to go out. It can be catered to different demographics, such as OkCupid for those in their 30s and Tinder for those in college, or Grindr for specifically finding LGBT individuals.

Age Differences

Alongside this accessibility, is also how apps change how dating is viewed. As a numbers game, it is stated by those using dating apps that “people are seen as commodities, as opposed to individuals” due to there being “20 other guys who look like you in my inbox” and “20 other girls who are willing to hang out”. Modern dating has made so many more people available to connect, alongside a layer of anonymity due to not meeting in real life, that erases the person and sees the potential romantic interest as nothing more than pixels on a screen. 

Dating has always been ambiguous – but a larger problem would be how individuals are now treated in the new dating sphere due to technology. The lack of proper, clear language is just how it has been throughout history. However, technology seems to have worsened the gap. 


An illustrated couple embracing.
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After reading Moira’s books, I learned that the ‘talking stage’ or ‘situationships’ are not exactly new. Relationships involve personal emotions, which are never as clear as people hope to be.  However, something I believe in, is that people should not be ashamed of these personal, messy emotions. 

Due to the internet’s anonymity allowing for ghosting to be normalized, people could simply develop a relationship online, then leave – invalidating the emotional weight people carried at the time. On TikTok, there is a lot of dating advice that involves saying that “you should get over someone you are in a situationship with because you were never dating them in the first place”. This invalidates the emotional weight of a relationship. If two people are talking to each other, with a mutual romantic interest, over the course of time, it does not feel good when they leave your life. There’s no need for a further explanation. The concept of getting over hookups and situationships because there wasn’t a clear definition isn’t fair to those involved. They should be able to grieve an intense romantic relationship they had with a person, just as they would with a friend they lost contact with or a pet who passed away. 

Possible Solutions: Embracing Emotions

People deserve to have feelings. It isn’t embarrassing for people to be too attached to someone they are romantically attracted to. It feels as if romance and love is pushed away nowadays. Women are viewed as ‘too emotional’ when they lose someone they talked to every day. It is something that people should be ashamed to have. People are strong when they play their cards right and hold themselves back. But people have emotions and these emotions deserve to exist and be expressed. 

So, when you have one of those situationships that lasts for a few months but is never clearly defined, both of you express care and affection for each other – and the other person decides to ghost you, call them your ex. You deserve to grieve an ex-relationship in your life. Language is constantly changing and dating language especially. But instead of hiding our emotions, they should be expressed and celebrated. All emotions, the good and the bad, and romance can be both at times.

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