(A modified screenshot from Artvoice)
After contributing a brilliant and witty comment to a conversation at a local pub last night, I was slightly accused of being a misogynist … or at least of employing a misogynistic discourse construction, namely “honey”. I have occasion to employ “honey” in a specialized discourse function and I’m going to defend my usage of this function and its value in conversation.
The word honey in conversation certainly can be demeaning when it is used to trivialize or marginalize the referent, as in “Hey, honey, get me a sandwich” (see here for relevant article).
However, the specialized application I utilized last night is different; in my case, I used it to indicate that my contribution was intended to be helpful and somehow more common sensical, more honest, more folksy than my interlocutors previous point. The use of “honey”(often co-occurring with “listen”), rather than being demeaning, was meant to convey familiarity and solidarity. I use it when my contribution is intended to wise up an interlocutor. I use it with both male and female interlocutors. And I am far from alone is employing "honey" in this way.
I assume it was borrowed from African American culture, but this specialized usage is particularly prevalent amongst gay men (just fyi, see Jeff Runner’s excellent powerpoint presentation In Search of Gay Language). I have had three gay male housemates over the years and I suspect I picked it up a bit from them; I think I’ve heard Bill Maher use it on his show as well (can’t for the life of me find an example though. I need Everyzing to improve dramatically).
Here’s a first pass attempt at listing the constitutive features of this construction:
1. be formed in low register vocabulary and syntax
2. begin with “honey” or “listen honey”
3. semantically contrast with another participant’s contribution
Example 1: blog commenter
"I don't get this obsession with men's "bulges" on the gay blogs. It really makes gays look juvenile and prurient. You really debase yourself with such stories."
Listen honey, if straight guys can check out boobs, we can check out baskets. Of course, I won't be able to drag my partner away from the computer today. [my emphasis]
Example 2: blog post
Here in my hometown, the reports and anecdotes are not so good. A friend’s daughter heard Obama is a Muslim. Another friend’s mother-in-law says that if Obama wins, “the Blacks will take over.” (Listen, honey, they can’t screw it up any worse than the Whites have.) [my emphasis]