Sunday, 5 August 2012

When is it ok to call me darling?

When I was seventeen 'darling' was a word my grandmother used. Or sometimes builders with their bottoms creeping above their jeans and wolf-whistles on their lips. I had my appendix out when I was seventeen, and felt particularly feeble - and so the 'hello darling' yelled from the building site felt like a compliment.

As I embraced feminism 'darling' was reduced to something I could accept from my grandmother, but from anyone else carried a hint of condescension. The man trying to sell me a car, the colleague who felt it was fine to press against me on the stairs, the creep at the party who sidled up with another glass of wine - I dismissed them all. 'Darling' was a word men used towards women, but women had no riposte. It was derogatory, implied I was some sort of floozie, an airhead, reduced to darlingdom that had nothing to do with ideas or thinking or genuine affection. A short-cut term that implied men had a right to claim my darlingness and I must be a killjoy if I should challenge them. It is, after all, only a bit of fun?

But suddenly something has changed. 'Darling' no longer has sexual connotations. It has become playful. It is fine when the man on the market calls me 'darling' - it is part of our Saturday banter. He can even suggest I've been out partying if I should happen to yawn, and it is a joke. He does not wave an erotic carrot, approach me with a courgette. 'Darling' is just part of our chattering, a token of affection and nothing more.

I also, as a grandmother, use it with my grandchildren. I can't find another word that gets close to expressing how wonderful I think they are. They are too little (yet) to complain.

I have not abandoned feminism. It has framed my thinking for the last fifty years and I'll be a feminist till the day I die. I simply notice how my attitude to the darling word has changed as I have aged. And you - are there words that got under your skin a few years ago, but that wash over you now?


  1. One of my fellow students in London was called "Love" (her African minister father had named all his many children things like Love, Patience, Mercy, Peace etc). She came back from one of her first trips on one of the old open platform red London buses and said in a puzzled sort of way, "How did the conductor know my name." We had to explain that it was something that conductors sometimes used when addressing women. "Oh, why do they want to do that?" was her response. Why indeed - but acceptable in that context. I would object here!

  2. Hi Joe..... I still find "darling" "ducky" "love" extremely condescending and irritating but happily I never hear them now after moving to the USA. Now it's "maaaaam" ??? or the wonderful "Miss Lynn", ..... when spoken in the southern drawl it makes me feel I'm a bit player in "Gone With the Wind"....always makes me smile....

  3. Yes, this must be a cultural thing because in the US it's not common practice and don't think it ever has been in my lifetime. It's all first names here.

  4. What a thoughtful post!

    I have friends here in the U.S. from Great Britain, and I have to admit, although casually offered, that their calling me "love" or "darling" always makes me happy. It's unusual to hear that kind of affection in Minnesota, and the older I get, the more prone I am to taking it where I can get it!


  5. Pearl - yes, I think it's an age-thing. Being noticed as an older woman feels like a bonus. But it's interesting how things are different in the States - and almost everywhere other than the UK. When I was travelling I was called 'ma'am' by many of the people who, at home, would call me darling. And 'auntie' - at first this felt very odd, as it made me feel like some sort of old woman in cardigans. But in India/Nepal etc it's a term of respect and affection for older women, and it grew to feel like a comment on my being accepted into a family or community.