I am fascinated by terms of endearment, how they vary, how frequently they are used, and how they are perceived in social contexts. When I was a child my father used to call me Dook. In my five year old mind I saw this written as D-O-O-K (to rhyme with hook), but later realised it was actually D-U-C-K, said in a Midlands accent which he had acquired working in Crewe when it was an important railway hub in the 1950s. Welsh mothers of a certain generation often used to call their male sons ‘Boy’ and this could persist until the boys were well into their sixties and seventies and begged them to stop.
In service encounters such terms can proliferate (but not in Waitrose!) and in Wales I have been called ‘love’, ‘lovely’, ‘flower’, ‘chick’, among others. London cabbies of the old fashioned kind still refer to all women under 90 as ‘Girl’. I vividly remember my Welsh driving instructor comforting me after I had failed my test for the second time “don’t worry, Flower, if you knew how many grown rugby players I’ve had crying in my car like you ” And surely part of the appeal of Motown songs was the liberal use of ‘Baby’ and ‘Sugar’. Such terms fell out of favour as politically correct sensibilities heightened during the 90s, but fortunately they have always been accepted in the heartlands.
When I came to New York I became aware I had to be careful with my language choices. For example, I was mildly chastised by a male colleague for a quip I made about Man Flu. What I had thought was a healthy irreverence for the opposite sex acquired after years of living in a household with three men turned out to be potential grounds for a micro-aggression workshop. But strangely enough, a wide range of address terms seem to be used without any fear of litigation. In my disoriented first days here I felt very comforted by the female canteen staff and coffee cart guys calling me ‘Sweetie.’ The Greek lady with the peaked cap in Tom’s diner soothes me through my breakfast with ‘Darlink’. And there is one assistant at the college Starbucks who laces each encounter with endearments and changes them for each customer. That’s what I call service.
In the student residence I represent a bit of a sociolinguistic challenge for the security and facilities staff because of my non traditional age, which seems to invoke some kind of polite address. Consequently I am called Miss or Ma’am, and my favourite facilities guy regularly chirps me up with his “Happy Friday , Miss Morgan!”.
I remember a line in the TV series the West Wing. CJ, the female press officer, reprimanded an aide : ‘Will you please stop calling me Ma’am? We’re not making a western here.” Me? Please call me Ma’am till the cows come home.