Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Honey-darlin' and other atrocities

One thing I had to get used to when I was writing for the Non-Southern World?

Having my characters call each other by name.

I know. For you Above-the-Mason-Dixon-Line folks, this sounds kind of weird. But we Southerners don't always refer to each other by name. In fact, about the only time we do is when we want to indicate that little Sarah Mary-Kate Johnson or William Joseph Baines (usually referred to as Billy Joe), is in hot water up to their eyelashes.

The rest of the time? Lord bless us, but we fall back on endearments.

Each Southerner, you'll find, has his or her particular pet "fill-name" for anybody younger than 16 or so -- and sometimes younger than 60. (Hey, when you get to be a certain age, you experience a lot of those "Some-timers" moments.) A common one in the south is Sugar.

We get teased about this quite a bit, us calling every man, woman and child "Sugar." But down here, it's an efficiency method, not meant to be sexist or insulting. We can concentrate on what you're actually saying, rather than trying to frantically recall just what your name is.

You have to remember that, at the same time we're carrying on this conversation with you, we're also juggling a double-handful of etiquette rules and regulations. For instance, most every conversation requires some reference to a person's mama, and how she's doing, which requires us to recall at an instant whether (a) someone's mama is actually still on this earth and (b) whether the person is currently on speaking terms with her mama (in the south, never a given, although we do revere our mamas).

This is generally covered by another short-cut, a simple question of, "How are all the folks doing?" Such a short-cut can backfire, as in the situations where we are treated to the wholesale discussion of someone's horrid sister-in-law's daughter's antics and Great Aunt Mabel's hemorrhoid surgery. It can even touch on how Buster, Big Willie Joe's bird dog, is sorrowing away since Big Willie Joe has had to take a night shift job and is no longer able to go bird hunting.

When you start bumping around someone's family tree, the limbs of said tree are apt to knock you a bit loopy. Thus, rather than accidentally insulting someone by calling her the wrong name (God forbid the dreaded sister-in-law), we just resort to Sugar.

I could have sworn I didn't use this method, that I never called anybody by a nickname that hadn't been earned by some cute little action he or she'd done while still in diapers. However, in the wake of my classroom volunteer experience, I was dished up a nice plate of crow.

Nope, I didn't call all the little people "Sugar." I called them "Sweetie." Boy, girl, or spotted giraffe, didn't matter. They were all Sweetie to me.

And I understood then the use of such an endearment, either Sugar or Sweetie or some other similar name (I've been called Honey, Darlin', Sweetie-Pie, and even Sugar-Foot, and those are just the ones I can easily remember). It wasn't just a memory device. It was another time-saver, a contraction of language.

What we might start out saying would be: "Be sweet as sugar and do X, Y, or Z for me." We Southerners have all heard that from our mamas or our grandmothers or some person acting in a parental way. Pretty soon, as slow as we talk, that got to be way too time-consuming, and it was truncated to: "Sugar, would you ..."

Translated? That meant, I'm going to assume you're going to be sweet as sugar and do X, Y, or Z, and if I call you that, you'll hopefully live up to your name. Since Southerners are always asking people to do something for them (not commanding or demanding), and since we're always juggling an arcane set of rules and regulations about social deportment, the use of the blanket endearment was born.

Back to my problems with writing. I went to the Wal-Mart School of Dialogue, where I soaked up dialogue and regurgitated it on the page. That gave me authentic Southern dialogue, complete with all the honeys and darlin's and sugarfoots that people might (and did) insert into their conversations.

Of course, when non-southerners like my critique partner Tawna Fenske or my editor would read such lovely appellations, they recoiled in horror. How COULD I allow my hero to be so sexist as to refer to my heroine as "darlin'" or "honey" or "sugar?"

It took awhile, but I learned that (a) either Non-Southerners have the thinnest skins in the known world, or (b) we Southerners, for all our hospitality, can be a bit dunderheaded. Since I"m Southern, I'll just blame myself and do a search and destroy with Word's find command on all my "sugars" and "darlin's" and any combination there-to.


Al said...

Authentic language is a headache!
I know exactly how you feel, for my Veiled in Shadows I was trying to give voice to Germans. For my WIP it's Russians. That is hard, hard, hard for an Aussie!

Linda G. said...

Ha! All my kids' friends are "sweetie" to me. Mainly because I don't want to slip up and call them by the wrong name. ;)

Anne Gallagher said...

When I was living in the wild wild west some years ago and working in the casino, everyone to me was "dahlin" (darling to those of you who don't do east coast accents). It was easier.

Now, living in the south, I get called all those endearments, 'sweetie', 'sugar', 'honey'. It's nice in a way, but still, a little unsettling. Up north we reserve our endearments for those we love.

In a book though, I think if you have authentic southern characters, I don't see why a few "sugar's" wouldn't be appropriate.

jefrix said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jefrix said...

Haha! I know just what you mean! While I was raised in the South, and graduated from Treutlen H.S., I quickly moved all over the country, winding up in Long Beach, CA and then Las Vegas. I just couldn't break the habit of calling all women darlin', honey, sugar, sweetie, and all men either buddy or dude. I was called into the bosses office (a woman) in L.A. for minor sexual harassment - I was mortified! What did I do!? She explained I had called someone "honey"...I didn't realize this was offensive to the feminist minded folk out west. I explained that I was Southern, and that's just what we do, and I meant no offense whatsoever. Apparently I was charming enough to get a minor reprimand and the instruction to never say that again, to which I replied, "Sure thing, darlin'!....dang!" It's just such a part of my upbringing that I couldn't stop myself from blurting it out, even in that situation!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Sugar! (heehee, couldn't resist)

I tend to refer to children, even my own, as "sweetie" because I would hate to offend them by calling them the wrong name. (This was my number one pet peeve as a child.) Living above the Mason-Dixon line for several years broke me of using endearments for adults, though I do slip when commiserating with a close friend.

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