Not surprisingly, feminists lost no time this week weighing in behind Emily Lucinda Cole, a Virgin Trains passenger who took great exception to being addressed by a rail employee 'with that hideously patronising word women shudder at in contexts such as these: ‘honey’'.
And indeed, the episode she complained about did suggest that the term wasn’t altogether friendly. When she told her ticket inspector she took exception to the brusque way he checked her ticket (and yes, I’m wondering about that), and that she’d be complaining to the bosses, he told her: 'You go ahead, honey'. He may have been an overworked Virgin employee fed up with middle-class girls getting uppity with him or he may have been a bad tempered so and so. It's difficult to tell. And the Virgin response – 'would you prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time?' was not calculated to appease.
All the same, I can’t stand this sort of thing. I can certainly take the argument that we should be more like France, with more sirs and madams and a bit less informality all round. But given that informality is our default mode nowadays, I find feminists whose day is ruined if someone from a different class of society, who may not have been brought up on Simone de bloody Beauvoir, calls her 'love' or 'dear' very, very tiresome. I’m a bit inclined to use terms like these myself, but I can get away with it. Someone from the north of Ireland or England who uses this sort of language isn’t generally attempting to be patronising, but friendly. And feminists who can’t discern that are a pain in the arse.
My own uncle, now dead, once called a woman at a Bromley housing association, Broomleigh, 'dear' in a phone conversation and she bit his head off. He was terribly hurt, and talked about it again and again. He was an inoffensive, rather timid, man; his intention was to placate her, not to ruffle her feminist sensibilities. But her very contemporary hauteur had the effect of undermining his confidence in dealing with officialdom from then on. How I wish I knew who she was. By the time I’d finished with her, it wouldn’t be terms of endearment she’d be complaining about.