A "mistress" by any other name

Can't we find a better word to refer to Maria Belen Chapur?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published July 1, 2009 9:02PM (EDT)

As we sift through the wreckage of the Mark Sanford media circus, one thing that's become clear is that the English language is sadly lacking for nomenclature. Specifically -- shouldn't we have a better word for a professional woman who's had a husband and a family and career of her own than "mistress"?

The word, after all, carries old fashioned associations with a "kept woman," and it certainly has no satisfying male counterpart. If Maria Belen Chapur was a mistress to Sanford, what, after all, was he to her? 

Salon's Mike Madden notes that the Spanish-language press appears to be less conflicted on the whole thing. He writes that "'Clarín', an Argentine daily, is using 'amante,' Spanish for 'lover,' to refer to both of them." But in English, "lover" just won't cut it. We have to concur with "30 Rock"'s Liz Lemon that it's a word best left between "meat" and "pizza." NPR this week referred to Chapur as Sanford's "girlfriend," a term that's fine for a prom date, but less satisfying when it comes to someone who's been involved with a United States governor. Which leaves us with what? "Companion" is too dry; "flame" is too overheated. "Doxy" has a nice ring, but it hasn't been popular since the crusades. Side girl? Paramour? Homewrecker? Appalachian Trail? 

Maybe the lesson is that it's pointless categorizing anyone in the context of her affair. Until we land upon the perfect word to describe the woman Sanford called a "soul mate," try referring to Maria Belen Chapur, as we do Mark Sanford, simply by her name.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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