Rantings of a sub-editor

November 22, 2010

Not my Howard

Filed under: affair,Uncategorized,word choice — substuff @ 4:32 pm
Tags: , ,

Here’s a tricky little question for you: when is an affair an affair? I am talking affairs of the heart and the bedroom here, rather than affairs of state.

I was alerted to this last week while reading a story about my favourite Take That member Howard Donald (well, at least joint favourite, anyway – Jason Orange will always have a place in my heart too). According to The Evening Standard, a court had lifted a super-injunction that the lovely Howard had taken out on a former lover: Take That star Howard Donald has no right to keep his affair secret, judges rule. But while The Evening Standard described it as an “affair” throughout the story, the Metro the next day described it as a “relationship” and the woman concerned as his “girlfriend”: Take That’s Howard Donald’s super-injunction lifted by court (mmm… great headline there).

To me, the word “affair” implies that infidelity is involved. In this case, there appears to be no suggestion that either of the parties were married or in another relationship. Neither was this a fling – it began in 2000 and ended last year. So is there any justification for describing it as an affair, other than that it sounds sexier than “relationship”? It strikes me that “an affair” and “a love affair” are also subtly different – the former suggests infidelity, but the latter suggests (non-permanent) romance.

This prompted two more questions in my mind:

1. If two people have a relationship, but one of them is also in another (presumably more permanent) relationship, are they both having an affair? Or only the cheating party?

2. If a newspaper refers to a relationship or “love affair” as “an affair”, thus suggesting infidelity where there was none – could there be a case for libel?



  1. My instinct agrees with yours, that an affair surely has to involve some infidelity. But a quick search only gives me definitions along the lines of “sexual relationship between two people who are not married to each other” – no mention of them having to be married or otherwise committed to anyone else.

    So it looks like all’s affair in love and war. (Sorry, I’ll get my coat…)

    Comment by Tom Freeman — November 22, 2010 @ 5:23 pm | Reply

  2. I think you are right about the definition meaning infidelity etc, but in a sad sign of my own train of thought and my expectations of your blog, when I read the headline “not my Howard”, I assumed it would be a piece about Philip Howard, the veteran philologist and author of the Times “word watching” column.

    Perhaps you were going to announce a variation on the popular series of “that’s not my bear” books for children. “That’s not my Howard, its vocabulary is too cliched”, “That’s not my Howard, its infinitives are too split” etc….

    But no, it was just a post about a celebrity. Boo.

    Comment by Paddy — November 22, 2010 @ 6:31 pm | Reply

    • Jeez – tough crowd!

      Comment by substuff — November 22, 2010 @ 7:55 pm | Reply

    • That’s not my Howard, his conversation is not peppered with “old bean”.

      Comment by pouletnoir — November 25, 2010 @ 4:48 pm | Reply

  3. I bet Philip Howard could answer your question about whether an affair means infidelity better than I can. He probably can’t dance as well as Howard Donald though

    Comment by Paddy — November 22, 2010 @ 10:00 pm | Reply

  4. I agree with you, but the thing is, Howard did have other girlfriends at the time also – with one he had a child with and he did haf an 8 month affair with a Dutch girl while he was with that birthmother. The relationship he had with his birthmother of his oldest child ended in 2002 after he allegidly cheated on her too… So I actually wouldnt put it past him that this case was indeed an affair at times. Honestly I dont care :p he can do what he likes, he even introduced the Dutch affair to the rest of the band, all of them knowing she was an affair and they didnt care.

    But I agree with your definitions though

    Comment by Helga — November 23, 2010 @ 1:33 am | Reply

    • Ah, now my illusions are shattered! Well he *looks* like a nice man. 😉

      Comment by substuff — November 23, 2010 @ 7:01 am | Reply

  5. I share the view than an affair implies infidelity on one or both counts. And I also think that the media likes to use that term along with others to add effect to stories. It’s like sports reporting in the tabloids – everyone is a star (or say star striker). Star to me always implied someone who was very famous. Now it is banded around all over the place.

    Comment by Simon — November 23, 2010 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  6. To answer your questions:
    1. I’d say that the word affair implies that something clandestine is going on. If there are two converging sexual relationships and only one of them is public, then the other one is an affair. So a sexual partner who is otherwise unattached may still be having an affair if there is a need to keep it hidden.
    2. I expect that it could be considered a libel, but only if there is a reputation to protect. Judging by Helga’s comment, there is not.

    Comment by pouletnoir — November 25, 2010 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

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