What word or words do you use at the end of brief exchanges with people you don’t know? If you pay for something in a shop or bar, what do you say when you get your change or your receipt? If the person who has served you is male, maybe it’s “Cheers mate” or “Thanks buddy”. If you’re dealing with a female employee, do you end these brief exchanges with words like “love” or “darling” or “honey”? I don’t. I have never called anyone “darling”, except as a joke. We have a well-used routine wherein if I give my wife some cash I will say, in a pretend cockney accent, “There you go, darlin’, get yourself something pretty”. And if she gives me some cash she will say the same to me.
Before we had children I used a small number of words expressing affection (and “darling” was never one of them) but in the thirteen years since our son was born, and the eleven years since our daughter was born, I have added many more to my day-to-day vocabulary: baby, gorgeous, princess, sweetie, top man, pop star, precious, angel, some of them, at times, with the word “pie” at the end. I now use them so frequently that I am in danger of saying them to complete strangers. It’s quite possible that, without thinking, on receiving my change from a barmaid or shop assistant, I will say, “Thanks, princess” or “Thanks, gorgeous”. Maybe I’ve already done it, but if so nobody has pulled me up on it. If that did happen I would apologize profusely and avoid the kind of response Virgin Trains EC made last week, via Twitter, when a passenger complained of a train manager’s “hideously patronising” use of the word “honey”. As you can read here on the BBC News website, the tweeted response asked, “would you prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time?” Really.
I am, at least, on safer ground when dealing with other males. These days I use the word “man” in brief exchanges with boys and men. I tap my Oyster card on the reader when boarding the bus and say, “Thanks man” to the driver. I use the same words on receiving my change or receipt from a barman. If we’re playing football in the park and some boy kicks the ball back to us after a misplaced shot I’ll say, “Thanks man”, or maybe “Thanks son”. Using the word “man” in this way is a fairly recent change. For decades I was reluctant to use it, possibly because I didn’t want to sound like a hippy. Maybe I was disproportionately affected by the mockery in “God save the queen” (Sex Pistols version), where the title line is followed repeatedly by a sneering and extended “We mean it maaaan!”
40 years on, “man” seems like the safest form of address for people I don’t know. Words like buddy, brother, boss, pal and mate don’t feel quite right. I have hardly used the word “sir” since I left school. But I haven’t found a similarly safe form of address for women. None of the non-affectionate words like sister, madam, miss or lady strike the right tone. (I do address nuns as “sister”, but that’s different. I also address priests as “father”, even though so many of them are younger than me.) Adding the word “woman” to the end of a sentence will never be respectful and all grown-ups should have learnt by now that words like “honey”, “pet”, “love” and “darling” will not be universally acceptable to women you don’t know. Currently, on receiving my change, or when a woman I don’t know pauses to let me pass, I simply say “Thank you”, or “Thank you very much”, with the emphasis on the last syllable. Maybe I’ll never find a non-offensive term to place at the end of these brief exchanges. Maybe, at some point in the future, when phrases like “gender-neutral” and “non-binary” no longer generate froth-laden articles by a certain type of journalist, I’ll stop using the word “man” too. It could make things much more straightforward, and I’ll be back to where I was in the late 1970s.