confirmed bachelor

From Aaron Hicklin’s Editor’s Letter “The Marrying Kind” in the September issue of Out magazine (p. 32):

Until very recently, British newspapers had a sly euphemism for known homosexuals who had resisted the kinds of sham marriages that were once par for the course. In the words of obituary writers, whose job it was to find substitute words for “gay,” they were “confirmed bachelors” — an infinitely lonely construction. Reading those obituaries, you would never get the impression these men (there was no equivalent phrase for women) had ever loved, or been loved in return. These were not confirmed bachelors in the American sense (commitment-phobic straight men on the merry-go-round of short-term relationships). They were men who were never getting married because they couldn’t.

The piece is about same-sex marriage, of course, but my interest here is in the expression confirmed bachelor.

It was my impression that both the euphemistic and the, um, straightforward uses were long available on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Wikipedia page for bachelor doesn’t distinguish British from American usage:

The terms confirmed bachelor or lifelong bachelor can refer to men who show little interest in marriage or other types of committed relationships, although now almost archaic due to more liberal social attitudes. These terms, as well as others such as not the marrying kind or never met the right woman are today not to be confused with gay culture, as they represent no affiliation with that lifestyle. That said, the term confirmed bachelor was a code or euphemistic term used to describe homosexual males, especially entertainers and athletes, in the era before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when many of their fans had no idea what homosexuality was and needed a palatable explanation for why their hero was unmarried.

(Check out Elaine Stritch’s tale of dumping her then-boyfriend Ben Gazzara for Rock Hudson. “We all know what a bum decision that turned out to be!”)

Certainly the commitment-phobic sense flourishes in the U.S., as in this description of the wildly womanizing character Barney on the tv show How I Met Your Mother:

Helping him in his quest is his friend Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), a confirmed bachelor with endless, sometimes outrageous opinions, a penchant for suits and a foolproof way to meet women.

(The actor Neil Patrick Harris is gay, and out. And last I heard, was getting ready to marry his boyfriend David Burtka in New York. They are an impossibly sweet couple, with two children.)

Hicklin continues on the euphemistic use:

… As for the term “confirmed bachelor,” it finally seems to be losing its luster. A cursory online search suggests that its usage in the British press today is largely arch and self-consciously archaic. I would pin the date of its demise to 2001 or thereabouts. In that year, under the nonsensical headline “Have Men Become the New Women?,” a writer for London’s conservative Daily Telegraph noted that “an interest in manicures and anti-wrinkle creams used to be the preserve of confirmed bachelors,” while that September, the Independent ran an obituary for theater critic B.A. Young, describing him and his “chums” as “all defiantly confirmed bachelors.” There was, of course, no mention of whether Mr. Young had ever been in a loving relationship of any kind. That awful double standard has helped to define and limit the breadth of gay life for far too long. The victory in New York, like earlier victories in this country, is important for us today, but just as important for every teen in the future who no longer has to find self-justifying reasons for why he or she is not the marrying kind.

What I’m not sure about is just how frequently confirmed bachelor was used as code for ‘homosexual’ in British obituaries, where “never married” would have done as well, and more decorously. (The Telegraph‘s obit for “Freddie” Young merely said “He never married.”) But The Independent‘s coverage (by Alan Strachan) did dwell on Young’s sexuality, though by sly indirection:

As a critic he belonged, unabashedly, to a rapidly vanishing Fleet Street, along with chums such as Philip Hope-Wallace of The Guardian and his FT predecessor Cuthbert Worsley – all defiantly confirmed bachelors and equally defiant champions of the long lunch, their watering-holes ranging from El Vino’s to the tiny Connie’s bar at the Mermaid Theatre to the Garrick Club. But he would be prompt and bright-eyed at every first night, usually accompanied by one of several personable but remarkably interchangeable fair-haired youths, and invariably filing crisp, elegant coverage for the next morning’s paper.

“Personable but remarkably interchangeable fair-haired youths” just sounds catty to me. I would be happy to see such journalism disappear.



9 Responses to “confirmed bachelor”

  1. Tané Tachyon Says:

    Unless I’m really mixing things up here, I remember seeing a picture of a guy holding a “Bachelors for Stevenson” sign in an LGBT history book. Can I remember what book it was? Not yet, anyway, and neither “Bachelors for Stevenson” nor “Bachelors for Adlai” are turning anything up on Google …

  2. mollymooly Says:

    In my personal lexicon of Edwardian English, a womaniser would not be a “confirmed bachelor” but rather a “gay bachelor”.

  3. John Baker Says:

    It is only in recent years that I have become aware that “confirmed bachelor” is code for “a gay man,” though I have long heard the term. Is it really long-standing code? When Henry Higgins calls himself a confirmed old bachelor in Pygmalion, are we to understand that he won’t marry Eliza because he is gay, rather than because of his irascibility? I believe he uses the same term in My Fair Lady, in which the two do become a couple at the end.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Confirmed bachelor has a long-standing straightforward literal use, on both sides of the Atlantic, and as far as I can tell, that use continues, despite the appearance (at some point) of the use as code for ‘gay man’. Plenty of men were, simply, like Henry Higgins, confirmed bachelors.

      I don’t know when the coded use first appeared, but that’s going to be hard to determine, just *because* it’s coded — designed to be inaudible to those who aren’t in on it.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Just to remind people that coded confirmed bachelor has had a continued life in the U.S., outside of obits: several (U.S.) posters to the lgbt list on Facebook have supplied personal anecdotes (which I don’t feel I can relay, because this is a personal space) about these uses.

    The thing about coding is that it’s always deniable. Or can be reinforced by facial expressions or body language (though these are effaced in written language).

  5. Ben Gazzara « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Stritch came up a while ago on this blog, in connection with the expression confirmed bachelor (here), believe it or not. Rock Hudson was the confirmed bachelor in question, and I recommended watching […]

  6. Elaine Stritch | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] “confirmed bachelor”:  on the expression, with special reference to Rock Hudson;  Stritch dumped her then-boyfriend […]

  7. cms22 Says:

    interesting as we are debating as to journalist’s use of this expression for long-standing family friend who died……. would you assume that modern journalistic usage of the term means gay almost 100% of the time?………..with internet individuals, there could be any use/misuse and different definitions but i’m wondering if a major world newspaper uses the expression..

    as per the blog writer, (appreciate your efforts), are u saying “never married” being a different way of saying gay was true years ago? or today? because i certainly don’t think it’s the case today (and i don’t mean common-law marriage or living together. i mean heterosexual but not dealing with women romantically.. new york times did a feature piece on just such men. basically they want no commitment, even of the weekly dinner variety.

    • cms22 Says:

      i should add the New York Times story on life-long hetero bachelors suggested they didn’t want to let people into their lives and wanted to keep everyone at a distance. most of them are comfortable at that level with their families but they have had initimate relation with them since birth and usually only see them sporadically anyway.

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