The Coffee Table


Riling Referents

I don’t get out much these days, due to my wariness of running into Madam Delta Covid, yet twice in the last week, people I’ve never met before have called me “Hon,” as in “Thank you, Hon,” or “See you later, Hon.” I know they’re trying to be nice.  

Still, the name doesn’t feel appropriate for a person in the twilight of her 60s.  I have always bristled when younger people use diminutives to refer to me — like I’m on my way out. Senile. Don’t have a brain. Since my husband passed away, I’m not anybody’s Honey, Sugar or Sweetie.

When I first moved to New Orleans, at 19, I opened a checking account in the local branch of Hibernia bank. When the male banker called me Darlin’, my protective female sensors went into high alert. It sure felt like a broad daylight sexual proposition. I did not yet realize that in the Crescent City everybody calls everybody Darlin.’ 

It’s historical. No amount of indignation was going to change that! Mr. Banker really, truly meant nothing by it. But still, in that first meeting, it stung. I almost took my banking elsewhere. A lot of good that would have done!

I remember talking to a neighbor about an African American farrier I hoped to hire to help with some ancient horses that lived on the property my husband and I had just purchased that were now our responsibility. My white-skinned neighbor knew the gentleman I was talking about and said, “Is he still around?  How is that ol’ boy?”  He didn’t mean anything by it. But I quietly took offense on the “ol’ boy’s” behalf.

My late husband once referred to a transgender woman as “he,”—in her presence—and the whole circle of people we were with got quiet. My husband meant no malice, he was just ignorant of all things transgender at that point in time. But I was embarrassed for him, and pined, long after, for the obvious offense inflicted. 

Since that faux pas, my darling honey sweetie (for real) came to comprehend a great deal more about what it means to be transgender. He intentionally read books and articles written by transgender men and women so he could better understand—and address people in a respectful manner.

But that was his way—to read, at length, about anything new he felt he should know about. Not all of us are that determined to keep up to date, or to clean up our potentially offensive lingo.It’s a lot to take in. Ever changing. What was once considered the norm might now be a case of slander, or worse. (Or sometimes it’s the other way around. There was a time when “rascal” was a name you dare not call another, or you might find yourself in a lawsuit—or a duel. Now it functions as a term of endearment for a mischievous child.) 

Perhaps some folks need to think about their reflexive vocabulary and what damage might be inflicted by using terms that are outdated or insensitive. And others of us need to lighten up when we’re pretty sure there’s no ill intent behind the words that make us cringe. I will if you will.

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