Note>> Information from this post is gathered from the Naval Correspondence Manual (Rev. 1983), the Military Protocol Handbook (Rev. XVI, 1991) and a discussion with the former Protocol Officer for Adm. Jeremy Boorda, former Chief of Naval Operations.
In the military there are many, many different kinds of ceremonies; some private, some public. But there is a protocol for invitations for every type of ceremony; who is to be invited, and who the invitee may bring.
In the 60s (which is as far back as I’ll go I promise) old traditions were clung to with an ardent ferver as the Vietnam War raged overseas. Commanding Officer’s calls were manditory as were drinks at the “O” Club Friday evenings. Military wives were even required to attend “dependent” functions.
For example, once a month a base or post CO would host a CO’s call in his post home. All officers and their wives were required to attend for cocktails. Wives would dress appropriately (cocktail dress, white gloves) and would leave calling cards (pre-printed “business” cards with their spouse’s rank, name and address. Invitation were sent, for example to: “Lt. Col. and Mrs. James Brown”. Girlfriends and fiancees were, of course, verboten. They hadn’t “joined” the service yet! (The Long Gray Line an account of the West Point class of '64 has an excellent narrative of such a function.)
Other ceremonies, such as Christmas parties, would call for wives and children to be invited: “Lt. Col. James Brown and dependents”.
For more personal ceremonies, such as when Lt. Col. Brown made full bird, he’d be allowed to invite his wife and “significant others” which included, but wasn’t limited to the kids, mom, dad, grandma, grandpa and the housekeeper, Alice.
Time steadfastly marched on, and women joined our intrepid bands in the defense forces. Things got sticky. Suddenly Col. Brown could be a Jamie and have a husband. What was proper protocol now? “Mr. and Mrs. Bob Brown”? “Mr. Bob and Col. Jamie Brown”? “Col. and Mr. Jamie (Bob?) Brown”?
The services took the wimpy way out, addressing invitations to the military member with the phrase “spouses welcome” at the bottom. For events that included children that phrase was replaced with “dependents welcome”!
We move on to the 80s and the shit really hit the fan! No longer is it correct to refer to “family members” as “dependents”. Fiancees are welcome to events, as is the girl you’ve been dating for two weeks! No more cocktail dresses, jeans are more the norm. Military members wearing civvies instead of their uniforms. Hawaiian shirt reenlistment ceremonies held at Hooters! Cats living with dogs! The rapture is at hand!
“Significant others” covers a lot of territory and doesn’t offend any specific sex, race, creed, religion or age group (at least it didn’t as of Monday) so it is now the preferable phrase when sending invitations to the command via e-mail. The printers were always so slow and expensive!
Note>> No cite for this assertion.
Since it is all-encompassing “significant others” was swiftly adopted by the civilian world, most notably the gay community in search of a term when “life mate” just wouldn’t do.
The 1978 Protocol Manual is the earliest cite I can find for the phrase “significant other”.
I leave you now to your own devices.