Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Commonwealth What?

Posted by Neal on July 28, 2005

This letter appeared in a local advice column last week:

I’ve been dating this guy for almost three months. A few weeks ago we kind of just stopped talking. My friends tell me this is a commonwealth breakup. I would be so relieved if it was, because I don’t like him that way anymore. (link)

Commonwealth breakup? What does that mean? At first, it seemed like the sentence that this term appeared in was defining it. Her friends told her that “this”–i.e., a breakup accomplished by a mutual, tacit decision not to talk to one another anymore, rather than by the uttering of, “I need more space,” “It’s not you, it’s me,” “We should see other people,” etc.–was what people referred to as a commonwealth breakup. The choice of the word commonwealth to single out this kind of breakup doesn’t make sense to me, but at least I can know what the whole term refers to.

The trouble is that in the very next sentence, the writer says, “I would be so relieved if it was.” To get the full meaning of this sentence, I have to undo the ellipsis of what would have come after was, so I plug in what came after is in the previous sentence, and read, “I would be so relieved if it was [a commonwealth breakup].” Apparently the writer was already familiar with the concept of a commonwealth breakup. In that case, the new information that her friends were offering was not a definition of commonwealth breakup, but the claim that not contacting one another for a sufficiently long period of time qualifies.

So I’m left with no definition. Unless… maybe the unspoken phrase after “so relieved if it was” is not commonwealth breakup but just breakup. Hmm… nope. If I say, “Glen wanted to be an economics professor, and now he is,” I can only mean that he is now an economics professor, not a linguistics, physics, or Defense Against the Dark Arts professor.

I’ve found only one other attestation of commonwealth breakup, from a blog entry from November 2001. (I didn’t even know blogs existed then, but I guess they did.) Here it is:

Ok, the girlfriend and I started dating last Friday. She hasn’t talked to me since Wednesday, so that makes 5 days of actual contact between the two of us, and as of today, it’s been 4 days without contact. Is there some kind of commonwealth breakup rule? I’m thinking of inventing one, because this is simply idiotic. Bah!! To hell with girls! (link)

The context suggests that my original guess at a definition was correct, so maybe the letter-writer, in her confused state of mind, botched the ellipsis. It also sounds like this blogger may have even coined the term–it’s so strange that I have a hard time imagining more than one person coining it independently. If either of you readers has heard this term and knows for sure what it means or where it came from, I hope you’ll enlighten me.

4 Responses to “Commonwealth What?”

  1. Brock said

    Perhaps she (or her friends) meant to say “common law breakup.” A breakup without a “breakup ceremony” would be analogous to a “common law marriage,” a marriage without a wedding ceremony.

  2. Neal said

    I wondered about that possibility, but the only hits I get for “common law breakup” refer to breakups of common law marriages, not ordinary breakups. Of course, just because I didn’t find the hypothesized usage in my easy online search doesn’t mean it’s not out there in the rest of the world.

  3. blahedo said

    I’m with brock on this one. The internal reasoning starts out, “oh geez, this is such a mess, I don’t like my boyfriend and I think the feeling’s mutual, ucchhh.” Friend says, “heh, sounds like some sort of a common law breakup,” making a joke. First person says, “whoa, this counts as already broken up? So we don’t have to go through the ‘it’s not me it’s you’ ickiness? That’s a relief.” Then reports the (intended-jokey) “common law breakup” as a “commonwealth breakup”. Right?

  4. Blar said

    I’ve never heard of “commonwealth breakup” or anything of the sort, but here’s my take on the letter. I read the sentence “My friends tell me this is a commonwealth breakup” as saying that her friends told her two things: 1) that not talking to your partner for this long is enough to constitute a breakup, and 2) that “commonwealth breakup” is the term for this type of breakup. In other words, they were both defining “commonwealth breakup” and asserting that her relationship had been through one. Then “I would be so relieved if it was” means “I would be so relieved if it was as my friends say”, or “I would be so relieved if it was so”, or “I would be so relieved if my relationship already counted as having ended by the terms of a commonwealth breakup, as claimed by my friends.” I think that plugging in “a commonwealth breakup” to undo the ellipsis would work, although it sounds a little weird, because all of the emphasis is on “breakup”. She really cares about whether there’s been a breakup, and a commonwealth breakup is simply the only kind of breakup that could have occurred.

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