The shifting sands of the meaning of words and expressions is subtle and constant. Languages evolve, of course, and in difference places at different times. Often the evolution is a forced change in response to language usage which is in some way hurtful to aspects of society.
Words and expressions like squaw, negress, cripple and mongoloid are a small, and mildly shocking (in today’s world), set of words that used to be just plain normal and descriptive to many, despite their inherent cruelty.
Still what is correct, or respectful, is not a universally accepted set of standards in the English-speaking-world, or even in Canada. The point was brought neatly home when I stood in the massive storm stock-up lineup at a grocery store in Charlottetown on Wednesday morning of this week.
The check-out employee, a man, greeted woman after woman with the word, “dear”.
“Hello, Dear...Getting ready for the storm, Dear....Did you find everything you needed, Dear...getting ready for the storm, Dear?”
What would have to have been surprising to many English-speaking peoples from “away” is how all the women in line easily, and casually, responded to to being called dear. They smiled, or answered with affection, and seemed generally pleased at this kindly employee.
What these “foreign” English-speakers would not have known is that it is just fine, in certain situations on the Island, to call grown women, “Dear.” And for that matter, grown men, for it is a least once a week that women check-out employees call me and other men, “Dear.” So locally, at least, it seems to not have a sexist connotation. (Although, interestingly enough, men never seem to address other men in this fashion.)
Our seemingly cavalier use of the word “dear” is probably cold comfort to some of these English-foreigners who have found themselves in hot water for calling grown women dear in their hometowns. To wit, Great Britain Prime Minister David Cameron himself would no doubt be confused about our usage, given the fairly extreme hot water he found himself in a few years ago when he casually used the fateful word.
During Question Time in the House of Commons, Cameron decided to counter a tough challenge from an opposition female MP, by saying, “Calm down, Dear!”. The response from the public, and almost all the media, was swift and devastating. (That other Guardian, Great Britain’s daily, arguably Great Britain’s equivalent to The Globe and Mail, slammed his use of the word “dear” as “...hideously sexist and patronising...”.
Imagine, in those admittedly collegial Island rituals of preparing for a storm, where we stand around and chat, commiserate, complain (lightly), while shopping, if one of us suddenly unleashed an attack on a check-out employee for calling somebody, “Dear”. Such a criticism would be somewhat unfair, of course, in that setting, yet not in every setting on the Island..
If nothing else, Dears, it proves how delicate, and fragile, and fluid our use of language is. For not even “dear” is acceptable in every context on the Island. If a P.E.I. male politician admonished a female politician in the same fashion as David Cameron did, there would likely be a similar outcry as there was in Great Britain.
And it is not impossible that some of those with their hackles raised might have just bought 20 litres of bottled water in preparation for our storm of the week, and were called “Dear” by a probably not intentionally patronizing male stranger.
Campbell Webster is a writer and producer of entertainment events. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.