Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Who Are You Calling "Sweetie"?

Last week on the Visual Thesaurus, William Safire and Nancy Friedman both weighed in on "Bittergate," the political furor that arose over Senator Barack Obama's comments about small-town Pennsylvanian voters ("It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion"). Now Obama has found himself under the microscope again for his use of a particular word, but this time the context is more "sweet" than "bitter." Responding to a question from television reporter Peggy Agar at an automobile plant outside of Detroit, Obama said, "Hold on one second, sweetie." Later he left Agar a voicemail apologizing about using the word sweetie to address her, calling it a "bad habit of mine." Lisa Anderson of the Chicago Tribune wryly wrote, "Welcome to 'Sweetie-gate,' a place paved with eggshells, where terms of endearment turn into political peccadilloes at the drop of a diminutive."

Obama told Agar that he meant "no disrespect," and Agar for her part said she wasn't particularly offended. "Frankly I have been called worse during interviews than just 'sweetie' so that really didn't take me aback right then," Agar said, adding, "I felt more offended that he didn't answer the question." But even if Obama did not intend his use of sweetie as offensive, observers agreed that it was hardly an appropriate word for a presidential candidate to use when addressing a female reporter, running the risk of sounding dismissive or condescending to a professional woman.

As Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, told the Tribune, sweetie as a term of endearing address is "a little ill-chosen to be a word you're using with a reporter, unless the reporter happens to be your sweetheart or lover." Indeed, the Visual Thesaurus wordmap for sweetie connects it to sweetheart and other words with a primary meaning of "a person loved by another person." Close by in the constellation of words for loved people are darling, dearie, and honey. All of these words can be used as "vocatives," as linguists say, which means they can be forms of address ("Come here, sweetie") rather than just plain nouns ("She's my sweetie").

Sweetie, formed from the adjective sweet and the diminutive suffix -ie, has been used as a vocative for quite a long time, especially in the United States. It appears as "sweet-ee" in a bit of comic verse from 1778 that is also notable for its early use of Yankee to refer to Americans:

O My Yankee, my Yankee,
And O my Yankee, my sweet-ee,
And was its nurse North asham'd
Because such a bantling hath beat-ee?

("North" in the verse is Lord North, the British prime minister during the American Revolution, and bantling is an old word meaning "brat" or "bastard.")

In contemporary American usage, vocatives like sweetie vary quite a bit according to region, age, and level of familiarity. As the Tribune notes, "Southerners so routinely sprinkle sugar, darlin', and honey on conversations with strangers that they would be shocked if offense were taken." Obama's "Sweetie-gate" opened an opportunity for pundits to mull over the acceptable social boundaries for terms of endearment, particularly those used by men to refer to women. In the Detroit Free Press, Mitch Albom writes that sugar, gorgeous, and cutie pie are "OK from your grandmother, your aunt or the 80-year-old immigrant dressmaker who says, 'OK, gorgeous, are you ready for your fitting?' But from a politician, a business associate or a stranger on a bus, they're bad."

So if you're thinking of using sweetie, watch out for the context. Especially if you're running for president.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 20th 2008, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Linda G.
Now that my golden locks have turned to silver and the laugh lines have definitely turned into crow's feet, I find that I am suddenly being called "Sweetie" by waitresses, grocery store clerks, and even other women in the neighborhood. I hate it!

Sadly, I am guilty of having done the same thing to friends and neighbors who are older than I am. I meant it as a term of endearment, but how many of them received that comment as I do now? Condescending and dismissive are exactly the right terms. Add disrespectful to that list. What is meant in a kind way is received--by me, anyway--as an implication that I am no longer part of the useful class of citizens who have names or any identity.

I won't be calling anyone "Sweetie" anymore except my loved ones. I hope the rest of you will take a lesson too.

Tuesday May 20th 2008, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Jason H.
I can't say that I use the term "sweetie" but I do say "dear" a term that I picked up from my grandma. I have always said it as a term of respect and sincerity, not as dismissive or disrespectful.

I see the manner in which Obama used the term as being the same รข?? but how about this? Obama made a personal phone call during the peak of his campaign to apologize for how someone else translated what his intention was. She then turned around and released that sincere voice mail message as a piece of news, which leaves me to believe that he was way off the mark when he used the term "sweetie".
Tuesday May 20th 2008, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Richard H.
It is really sad that most of us are so afraid to say anything because it might offend. Offense is in the mind of the beholder. Lenin, in describing his political correctness program put it this way: "We will make the people afraid to Say a thing; In time, they will be afraid to Think a thing". We should be willing to be "Offended" so that others may speak.

Tuesday May 20th 2008, 3:51 PM
Comment by: Philip T.
I don't know about Lenin, but the sweetie-thing is all about delivery. As a foreigner, when travelling in the Midwest or the South, there is nothing like a stranger saying honey while puring you coffee in a diner or son while giving you directions (That's why they call it the Heartland), as long as it's done convincingly and without ulterior motives like selling you something. You never get that in most parts of Europe, and to think it's superficial or condescending when said to strangers, seems to me a bit off. Whether or not it's in fact suitable for a presidential candidate to use it, must be up to the american voters. If they prefer a manchurian machine who never says anything that's not written down beforehand, that's up to them. If the delivery was respectful and without sexual connotations, there shouldn't be any case. Unless the legacy of Mr Clinton is stronger than we think.
Tuesday May 20th 2008, 6:07 PM
Comment by: Rain
My first reaction is "What's all the fuss about, anyway?" How could calling someone "Sweetie" be construed as negative? But then...I imagined Obama addressing a woman he held high respect for, and I don't think he'd be calling her "Sweetie." That's what its all about, Alfie.
Friday May 23rd 2008, 9:39 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Obama's controversial "bitter-sweet" choice of words is particularly ironic considering the accolades he receives for being such a great orator. I suppose orating and conversing are quite different skills.

Outside the loving relationship context, there seem to be additional social-context delineations between sweetie-good and sweetie-bad. Clearly, Obama went sweetie-bad with this reporter. But would the reaction be the same if the "Texan" George W. Bush said the same thing to the same reporter?

Something tells me that former Senator and Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson would be able to get away with calling a female reporter "sweetie" without much hubbub.
Monday May 26th 2008, 12:08 PM
Comment by: Jaye
As a woman of a certain age, I address people--old, young, female, male, peers, superiors, strangers--with endearments and get away with it. I think it has to do with the speaker's personality and age. I would never use an endearment with someone I didn't like and respect. As for Obama, saying "sweetie," I don't think he was being disrespectful or dismissive. Every brief encounter is not successful, even between professionals. Can't we forgive something so minor in the greater scheme of human interaction?

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