Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Should TV Censor the Word "Honey"?

We learn something every day. For instance, today I learned that there is a human alive, and apparently not too brain-damaged to write a coherent e-mail, who's clueless enough to say "I can't stand your 'gay'ness" and "Do not be offended" in the same e-mail. may be possible to say "I can't stand" [something that's altogether beyond the person's control] "but I like" [something the person makes or does where the thing beyond the person's control doesn't interfere with the speaker's enjoyment] in a wholly complimentary way. For instance, I don't know how Glenn Beck or his team may feel about this, but when I say "I can't stand Glenn Beck's TV show but I like several of his books" I mean that in a wholly complimentary way; maybe you, too, basically don't like TV and think various things about Beck's shows go over your limit, and you, too, will be pleasantly surprised by how much you like his books. Or I think back to a letter J. Vernon McGee once read in a radio broadcast, not sounding offended: "I couldn't stand your Texas accent at first, but after reading your books and getting interested in your approach to the Bible" [etc. etc. etc.] "I'm even beginning to like your accent!"

Would anybody say to Glenn Beck, "I can't stand the sight of your albino face" (bearing in mind that showing anyone's real skin color, or real hair, on TV is definitely a choice) "but do not be offended"? To the late Dr. McGee, "I can't stand the sound of your Texas accent, but do not be offended"?

If you want to bother complaining about a news reader's style, you might try, if it happens to be true, "I don't mind whatever it is that you're doing, myself, but someone else in my home or office can't stand it." Or "I suppose the way you said [whatever] is part of your style, but it came across as annoying; could you please not use that particular twirk again?" Or "I enjoy your message, but I find your accent distracting and/or hard to understand; I'd appreciate it if you could tone the accent down a little bit." Or write to someone higher up the ladder to say "I can't stand News Reader X. As long as you employ him I'll have no choice but to get my news from the other channel." Or just get your news from the other source and let the TV station that chose to shove Mr. "I'm So 'Gay'" in your face figure it out.

I can see why David Ferguson and Mitchell McCoy are angry about this. I don't know what McCoy may have done to provoke it, but that was one truly obnoxious e-mail.

But I want to highlight one particular twirk in his commentary for attention here: he addressed the reader as "Honey."

It's been pointed out to me, ever since the word got out that I had failed to collect my late husband's substantial estate and the local Trash Class started feeling a need to express their free-floating hostility by showing disrespect to me, that this word actually has several meanings.

On the surface it means "sticky stuff excreted by bees, consisting largely of super-concentrated sugar, such that its sweet taste turns the stomach of neurologically complete adults, but some people like to eat it anyway." Hence, when used to address a human being, it might be considered to mean "You are 'sweet' or pleasing."

Except that, historically, it never really did; the use of "honey" to address human beings seems to have started out among slaves, along with various other cliches that they might have succeeded in telling slavemasters they considered flattering, but they didn't. "Oh lawsy, Miss Anne, did it sound like I was saying 'maggot'? I meant 'magnolia'!" I came along too late to hear anyone actually address a child as "Pussy," although both Louisa May Alcott and Robert E. Lee did, but I did grow up hearing real Southerners address members of their family as "honey," and also "poopsie" and "old poop," once in a while. It never, ever, sounded sweet. It always, unmistakably, carried a sting. It's part of what Suzette Haden Elgin described as Placater Mode Vaps, and I've never heard it used in the South except in a vap.

(Vap = Verbal Abuse Pattern, referring specifically to one of a small group of sneaky verbal attacks where the hostility is expressed more by the intonation and context than by the bare words. "Why did you do that?" might be an honest request for an explanation; "Why did you do that?" expresses surprise; "Why did you do that?" is a vap.)

For example, perhaps because I've mentioned albinism, this vintage novel comes to mind as an example of how people use "honey" when talking to their own children. One of the characters has albinism. His mother, though not altogether unfit, has always let him know that she considers him ugly. He mentions the idea of saving something for his children. Mean-Mouthed Ma screams, "Your children? Oh my honey!" I remember reading that scene, recoiling from the unmotherliness of it, laying down the book and thinking it through. "Yes...although the fictional characters are supposed to be Northerners, they get it. This is the way someone in Virginia would call a child 'honey'."

In the North "honey" means, primarily, "bedmate." At least two Top 40 pop songs of my youth dinged that usage into our ears. It's not what Southerners actually call each other in bed, where it refers to the mess not the person, but it does seem to be what a lot of Northerners call people they're not entitled to call "wife" or "husband," after referring to those people as "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" loses even historical relevance.

(Note, also, the use of "honey" in this news story, which I read just after posting the first draft of this post: )

Northerners like to believe that "honey" is a term of endearment in the South, much as the slavemasters liked to believe that it was a term of endearment the servants used to their children. They are mistaken. As a term of address to a visiting Yankee, "honey" means, and has always meant, "Oh, you're just sooo welcome as long as you're spending money foolishly! Just be sure to buy your return ticket before you've maxed out that credit card!" Whatever is said in between "honey" and "bless your heart" is probably a vap. (Anybody, North, South, West, or outside the U.S., can of course say "Sir" or "Ma'am" or "you" or "this customer" in a way that unmistakably expresses hate too, but normally those words are not used to lead into a vap; "honey" is.)

Why would "honey" be exclusively associated with verbal abuse if it meant "sweetness"? Because it doesn't always, or necessarily, mean "sweetness." Its primary meaning is still "body secretion." It has a cluster of secondary meanings, therefore, associated with the secretions of non-bee bodies. This web site's contract specifically bans displaying most of the specific synonyms of "honey," although they can include blood, sweat, tears, and saliva too. "Honey" can definitely be used--as Jack Douglas noted--to include the secretions usually referred to by the censorable S-word and P-words, but it usually means the ones those words don't cover.

There are also those who spell the vulgarism "hunny." This may indicate an effort to identify it as part of a group of British slang words that were formerly used among members of the lower feudal class to address one another, still found as "hinny" and "hen." Americans consciously rejected these words (although they may have influenced the development of "honey" as a name slaves could safely call slavemasters' children). On the other hand, in the early twentieth century, American hatespeech definitely did include "Hun" as the term of hate for a person of German ethnic origin. Germans were not officially hated by English-speaking Americans before 1914 (though their "different looks and customs" were distrusted, notably by Benjamin Franklin) but "Hun" might perhaps have influenced "honey" among speakers of slave dialect. In any case, "hunny" is unmistakably part of racist hatespeech...except when Winnie-the-Pooh is using it, always as a cutesy-wutesy misspelled label on a jar, never to address a person (or stuffed animal).

Disney Plush, Winnie The Pooh

My opinion is that, even if you love all those idiotic old songs where people call their bedmates "Honey," even if you have a bedmate whom you want to call "Honey" and by whom you want to be called "Honey," it's still a good idea not to use a word that packs this much history of hate in any public place, for any purpose whatsoever. If you are capable of hearing "Honey" as a term of endearment, save it for the bedroom, please.

As a term of address for "anybody and everybody"...first of all, English doesn't need a word people can use to "call anybody and everybody," because if you're addressing anybody and everybody you don't need to "call" any individual anything. Just shout. If you want to emphasize the general nature of your shouts, you could say, "Hey! Everybody!"

But I think David Ferguson provides a good example of what people actually communicate, and intend to communicate even if they lie about it, when they call any random person "honey." The primary meaning is, "I'm angry, either about a particular thing I intend to explain" [as below] "or because I'm an angry, hostile, bitter person who hates myself, mostly, as it might be for being an adult stuck in a teenybopper's job, and deals with this self-hate by projecting it outward onto all the people I see all day." The secondary meaning is, "Because I'm such a hostile person, I want to make it loud and clear--I feel no respect for you! I want to show disrespect for you! I may be a loser who's still doing a student-labor-type job at age 50 and who's been denied visitation rights to my children, but because the boss is impatient to go home today I can get away with insulting the boss's customers! (Maybe.)"

Some observe that "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." More perceptive observers, noting that most people don't want to attract flies, observe that you can catch fewer flies by keeping your mouth shut. To anyone who feels that that hateful "Honey" is likely to drip out of his or her mouth in a place of business, my advice would be: keep your mouth shut. If you really are on "friendly" terms with a customer who misses your conversation, vent your frustration to him or her privately, at home.