Monday 5 July 2010

Filler Words: Part the Second: Vocatives

It would be foolish, indeed reckless, to read this post without having first read this one.

Listen, you, I have something to say.

The you is dull and voiceless and could be replaced with many other far more fascinating words. For example:

Listen, dude, I have something to say.

The choice of substitute says nothing about the person being addressed, but an awful lot about the speaker or writer. It therefore gives the sentence a distinctive voice. In writing, where you have no accent or body-language to help you along, that is frightfully important. One well placed vocative can set the authorial tone for a whole book, blog post or ransom note.

Dear = married
Darling = Engaged or theatrical/fashion/overbearing female/gay
My child = Biblical and therefore whimsical
My good man = 1950s, Middle Class and slightly enraged
Dear Reader = Austenish
Gentle Reader = Eighteenth Century. It tells you to read the whole work in a particular, mannered way.
Buddy = American
Chuck = Northern working class
Duck = Ditto
Petal = Working class
Guv = Ditto
Babe [to a man or unknown, unisex reader] = California cool?
Poppet = Wonderfully old fashioned and endearing
Old Bean = Bertie Wooster
My Friend = Sinister mafioso
Dude = American, young. Unlike my friend, dude suggests reciprocity and similarity. I cannot call you dude unless I am a dude myself. (I am not a dude).


Love = Unshaven
Cherie, Bella, Liebling etc = Effusive female OR gay man
Sweetness = Camper than a row of tents
Hon (or, if she's German, Hun) = Familiar and vaguely American
Baby = Generally cool
Babe = One should remember David Cameron's "I love you, babe" to his wife "caught" on microphone after his conference speech, and Pamela Anderson's respose in the profound and moving film Barbed Wire, where she shoots people.


Mate = If you are my mate, I am your mate. I am insinuating that I share approximately your views on football, beer and the fairer sex.
Pal = In England always aggressive, but in a weirdly middle-class way
Son = Authoritative, but also threatening
My boy = Healthy, bullish, red-faced
Dear boy = Camp or terribly posh
Chief = Southern working class
Man = This is some good shit we're smoking
Mister = 1930s Chicago Gangster, 1970s cockney, 1990s... in fact there are so many disctinct voices that could be deduced that I should avoid this one until after the voice has been established.
Old chap = Charming in a Terry Thomas sort of way (and if you don't know who that is, click here)

Due to the continuing phallologocentric nature of society (a condition that I do my level best to perpetuate) you can use male vocatives from an unknown reader, but not female ones.

Once, on a train, I was slyly reading a love-letter over the shoulder of the lady next to me, because I am an incorrigible snoop. In it, her beau referred to her as "my little snugglosaurus." There were tears in her eye.

I'm not sure why.

As ever, corrections and additions in the comments please.

Miss Anderson reacting to the Inky Fool's views on vocatives


  1. At least among my circle, "dude" is the unisex pronoun of choice, as "they" is hotly contested in singular use, and "one" makes one sound a bit stuffy.

    Buddy, in America, has a similar connotation as Pal does in England.

  2. As an additional gloss, I think that in the UK "hon" is used mostly by women to address their friends, who they would describe as their "girlfriends".

  3. I once went out with someone who called me me "babe" or "dude", interchangeably - which supports Elizabeth's comment about "dude" being unisex.

  4. Didn't Isaac Asimov refer to his readers as Gentle Reader as well?

  5. I quite enjoy "old bean" (unisex), "old boy" ("old girl" earns you a slap) and "me old bucolic muckamuck" (which results, more often than not, in a request that I define both bucolic and muckamuck - but it is a conversation starter).

  6. The Antipodean, who has been called "Your Majesty" on occasion, and has to admit she kinda liked it,5 July 2010 at 16:38

    A friend of mine calls people 'darling or 'darl' because she can't remember their names, or when she is a teensy bit cross with them. It is sometimes hard to tell which is applying at any given time.

    I think I've used 'm'sieur' in a comment in the past, and 'Mister' would've been quite different, either small-child-tugging-at-the-hem or 1930's gangster; I suppose for the full orphan effect I could've said 'Hey, mister.' Master would be different again, even with it being your proper title and all, although 'honest neighbour' could work too.

  7. I'm adding these in as quickly as I can.

  8. Miss Podean,
    In all this I'm having terrible trouble finding words that signify Australian. Or at least the words I can think of are so obvious and stereotyped as to be useless (sheila, fair dinkum, bruce etc). Any ideas?

  9. Round here (West Midlands, UK) you also get 'Chick' - I'd say the local equivalent of Petal. As in "How's it going, chick?" - usually said female to female.

  10. In the Baltimore, MD, area "hon" is pretty unisex in address, particularly (but not exclusively) from waitresses of a certain age. "Hey, hon, how 'bout them Os?" Once somebody spray painted a "hon" on the "Welcome to Baltimore" sign on the Parkway. It was too cool, so the city painted it over.

  11. Don't like to quibble but I think "duck" is really a Derbyshire rather than Northern expression. You missed out "pet" which is widespread in the North East.
    In the mists of time when I was young men called each other "squire" in a slightly jokey way, but then in those days one addressed letters to Inky Fool Esquire.
    Enjoy you holy-day Inky.

  12. The Antipodean, still wondering if Miss Podean could eventually be reduced to 'misfit',9 July 2010 at 12:21

    Master Berry, I am thinking about this. It is tricky - I think there are terms that would signify it to other Australians and/or people from your region (there are regional differences) but something that will work internationally without being a stereotype... an interesting question. More eventually.

  13. The Antipodean, realising she could have said Master Sirius Berry,9 July 2010 at 12:22

    Err, that.

  14. Excellent post, my good man!

    Incidentally (and I don't think you mentioned incidentally in your part the first) my best Australian friend calls me 'doll' but otherwise I am universally referred to as 'sweetie pumpkin'

  15. Brokenbiro - I also have an Australian friend who calls me "doll" (nobody else does). Is this something that could signify Australian? Or is it regional? Or just idiosyncratic?