I don’t like to brag, but in my senior years I have developed an uncanny power over women. For some reason, these women seem to be concentrated in the retail sector of the economy. I know they are infatuated with me because they call me by sexually suggestive names, even before we have been formally introduced.
Recently I was picking up some dry cleaning. The woman at the register was young. (“Young” being defined as having more than one visible tattoo.) As she gave me my change, she felt compelled to express her deepest feelings toward me, saying, “Here you go, Honey.” I was left to brood over why this sort of thing never happened to me when I was young and single.
Alright, alright. I know. Addressing a stranger as “Honey” or “Sweetie” or even “Sweetheart” is considered no more than common courtesy these days. As used by someone in a store or restaurant, it has no deep meaning. It is just something to say if you don’t feel like calling the person in front of you “Sir” or “Madam.” I get it, but still, it is startling.
The names we use to address each other have changed so dramatically. In my hometown of Findlay, Ohio, in the late 1950s, there were men who had been married for ten years who would have been embarrassed to address their wife as “Sweetie.” They felt it presumed a level of intimacy they had not yet reached.
The language that men use toward each other has also undergone a sea change. At one time there was tremendous pressure to not be seen as bragging in any way. It was considered unmanly. If you did say anything that could be construed as puffing yourself up, you could count on someone being there to cut you back down to size. There were an array of greetings you could choose from to show the other guy that he should not consider himself to be anyone special.
“Hey, Ace, how you doing?”
“What’s up, Slick?”
“What’s the good word, Chief?”
“Think you’ll make it, Boss?”
The message was, “Remember, you’re not a big deal.” It was a form of social leveling that may have helped men to share and overcome the hardships of World War II. But it could seem harsh and cold.
Today’s forms of address are warmer, kinder. Now a man can say to a friend, “Dude, you screwed-up.” He can say, “Man, what were you thinking?” When you call a man “Dude” or “Man,” or even “Guy,” you are affiliating with him. The words imply that we’re all in this together. They cushion the blow, they make it more likely that a bit of criticism can be delivered without arousing a feeling of hostility.
Young people today have created these ways of referring to each other that in my opinion are a lot better than the ones they inherited from my generation. Still, they seem to have some nostalgia for the old ways. Many of them, as new parents, are drawn to names from our nation’s past. Today’s young parents are busily changing the diapers of little frontier women—Nellie, Lillian, Penelope—as well as of former presidents—all the tiny Harrisons, Tylers, Jacksons. No word yet on any day care centers being swamped with little Blanches or Gertrudes, or a new crop of Horatios and Ulysses.
Young mothers are holding the line at the really radical name changes. They want to keep the best of the past, but not bring back its extremes. To which those of us who lived through both times can only say, “Thanks, Honey.”