Is it acceptable to call someone 'babe'?

Bus passenger

Bus drivers in Brighton and Hove have been told not to call passengers "babe" or any such familiar terms. But how offensive are they?

Eric Morecambe called his guests "sunshine", Coronation Street's Vera Duckworth used to call anyone and everyone "chuck" - but bus drivers in Brighton are being asked to think twice before they refer to passengers as "babe", "love" or "darling".

According to the Brighton Argus, the Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company received one complaint about the comments being "sexist".

As a result, bosses have asked drivers to refrain from using such terms.

A spokesman, quoted in the Argus, acknowledged that such complaints were rare. But over the past decade there have been moves by a number of hospitals and councils to stop their employees using such familiar terms.

In 2006, managers at Newcastle City Council instructed staff to think carefully before using terms such as "pet" or "hinny" when referring to women, for fear that they may be interpreted as sexist.

But critics of the move argued that such terms were part of the region's linguistic heritage, and that people were simply employing traditional Geordie terms of endearments.

So when bus drivers, cabbies and shopkeepers use words like "luvvie", "darling" or "flower", they are being "affectionate, not patronising", says Tony Thorne, editor of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.

Image caption The moment Pamela Anderson's character says "Don't call me babe!" in the 1996 film Barb Wire

"It's only urban sophisticates - usually under the age of 40 - who choose to find them distasteful. It is the 'language hygienists' who choose to see them as discrimination," he says.

"It's folksy - part of a tradition in this country, a momentary affection between strangers. I know people who don't live in Britain any more and when they come back they say how much they like to hear terms of affection, such as the Essex 'babes'."

Thorne acknowledges, however, that a woman has a right to complain if she doesn't like such terms being directed at her.

How such words are interpreted is very much to do with the context in which they are being used. In the workplace, "love", "darling" or "hon" might be found offensive by some and they can be used with the express intention of belittling or harassing a colleague.

'Sexist overtones'

There are a wide variety of such terms used around the country, and they are usually emptied of their literal meaning, says Ian Brookes, Consultant Editor at Collins Language.

"So 'pet' and 'hen', for example, are generally regarded as pleasant things, and these words have been transferred to a person instead of an animal. 'Babe' falls into the same category as 'doll', 'hen', and 'pet' - babies are things you feel sympathy and affection for.

"People use these words as a reflex without thinking of the item to which the word originally refers," Brookes suggests. "However, the case of 'babe' is more convoluted - it refers to a small child, but also became used in the 1990s to refer to an attractive woman, and so can have overtones of sexism."

The problem with terms of address and endearment is that changes in language have not quite caught up with society, says Brookes. There has been a shift in the way people address each other in public places, such as hospitals, from using more deferential terms, such as "sir" and "madam" to more familiar terms that people have imported from their personal relationships. Some people see this importation of personal terms into neutral contexts as inappropriate.

"The appropriateness of the term of address is in the mind of the beholder," Brookes argues.

"In the English language, most of the terms we can use to address people veer towards either the deferential or the familiar."

People often use language without thinking about the literal meaning of what they are saying and without considering what the person on the receiving end is thinking.

"By asking bus drivers to think about words, as the council is doing, they hope that the drivers might come up with something that won't cause offence to anyone."

Kate Fox, a social anthropologist and author of Watching the English, suggests that if offence is taken, then it is best dealt with immediately and possibly with humour.

"The English are not very good at complaining. We mutter to each other, work ourselves up into a state of righteous indignation. Then, when we do complain, it comes out worse than we meant it to. Perhaps this is what happened in this situation," she says.

"I think the best way to deal with being called 'love' or 'babe' if you didn't like it, would be to say something humorous to get the message across - something like 'thanks stud muffin'."

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