“Sir” is a problem.

There’s a few words missing from our language.

In New Zealand, if you’re a waiter or a bartender at a middle-class establishment, ‘Sir’ is the only term you’ve got available to use to get the attention of the XY-chromosome-carrying member of the dining/drinking party so you can take their order when they’re busy talking i.e. “And what can I get for you, Sir?”

And then 85% of the time you get the smartass baby boomer who says, “No need to ‘Sir’ me, darling, I haven’t been knighted yet.” (These are the same men who say “I’ll have a wee dram” and mean they’d like a Drambuie, but if you ask for clarification, they’ll tell you you have to figure it out. Guys, you’re jerks. Cut it out).

bar david j flickr.jpg
Seriously, don’t make me guess. ‘The Bar’ by David J on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence

‘Sir’ also works for everyday interactions, like “Excuse me, Sir, is this your wallet on the ground,” or “Sorry Sir, your mobility scooter is parked on my foot.”

“Ma’am” isn’t any better, unless you’re addressing royalty, in which case, booyah. (Entirely uninteresting fact: I once scrubbed down a BBQ grill so the Duke of Edinborough could cook on it during the 1990 royal tour of New Zealand.) Who the hell wants to be called Ma’am, but what’s the alternative?

We need a non-gender-specific term to mean Fellow Human Whom I Am Addressing. For years I’ve wanted to bring in ‘Comrade,’ but that went down worse than ‘Fetch.’

The other word that doesn’t work is ‘boyfriend.’ At least, it’s totally fine and dandy for sixteen-year-olds. And twenty-six-year-olds. Or maybe thirty-six-year-olds. But yesterday I met a woman who is 72 (she told me repeatedly she was 72) and who went to her “boyfriend’s” family for Christmas dinner, and cognitive dissonance set in. I’m not sure where the appropriateness cut off is for ‘boyfriend,’ but I feel it’s under 72 for heterosexual women. Curiously, I can see ‘boyfriend’ working if you’re a 72 year old guy. But I can’t think of anything better.

A quick poll at the dinner table suggests baby boomers dislike the term “partner.” A few said it suggested a power imbalance, or was impersonal. I found partner the most useful when LGBTQ humans couldn’t marry. It seemed elitist to use the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ when that was denied to a big chunk of the population. But now, I guess – in many countries, but not all, sadly – the need has gone.

Does partner work for a short-term or new relationship, though? It suggests something fairly solid and lasting, involving wills, although not necessarily joint mortgages. A partner is the person who takes you to chemo. A boyfriend is the guy you hooked up with last month and have been sexting with ever since, and more power to my new 72 year old friend if that’s the case.

‘Man friend’ doesn’t work for me. It makes my teeth clench. Perhaps it’s because it has an air of cruise ship dance host about it. ‘Girlfriend’ is confusing, when a woman can go out to the movies with ‘girlfriends’ and doesn’t mean she’s in a polyamorous lesbian relationship. ‘Woman friend’ is only marginally better than ‘lady friend,’ which makes me nauseated.

Most of all I really, really want something gender neutral, that means “Another human with whom I have formed a relationship involving emotional closeness.”

These are all keystone terms for any culture. We need better words. I’m open to suggestions.

7 thoughts on ““Sir” is a problem.

    1. oooh, can I call you Gillian-sensei? You know what else we need? Senpai and kouhai, which I love because YAOI! We *need* those in English. And I hate it so much when stupid translators change them.

  1. Rhode Red

    I love being called ma’am but am American where people who don’t know your name often say “miss” under the impression it’s a compliment that you look super young even if you are obviously old enough to be their mother. (Which makes me want to deck them because a “miss” is such a diminutive.)

    For couples, I and most people I know here use partner now unless you know for sure otherwise because even though anyone pretty much can get married, a lot do not despite kids, houses, etc. Better not to assume marriage, especially because if you do, it has common law marriage implications and can royally mess up a break up financially.

    As for boyfriend, I have no damn idea. Agree it’s stupid coming out of mouths over 50. Also, if you are poly, using the term boyfriend then upsets outsiders who think it equals monogamy. So, you’re basically outing yourself if you consecutively introduce two different men as your boyfriend to the same neighbor you forgot you ran into a few hours before. Which has absolutely never happened to me during a frazzled city wide event day. Oh no no no no. (Hiding now.)

    1. heh, maybe your neighbor thought you were a serial monogamist who was just going through men at an exceptionally fast rate 🙂

      oh, god, ‘Miss’ ; that’s just the worst, isn’t it? Unless it’s the 1930s and you’re sitting in a malt shop when a Hollywood producer spots you.

  2. I had a friend that was really into making comrade work too. Sadly she too found it didn’t work out. I opt for ‘pal’ as a friendly-neutral address – but maybe that only works bc I’m from Glasgow and everyone here says it? It might be weird in other places.
    And I am similarly stumped on the boy/girlfriend thing. I like partner because it also sounds like we fight crime but it’s not a casual dating term. I’ve heard ‘datemate’ but that makes me cringe. We need more words. Let me know if you solve this puzzle.

    1. ‘Pal’ has the advantage of a John McClane vibe, but will also get you beaten up if used in a Kiwi pub. “You got a fucking problem, PAL?” *cracks knuckles*

      I have never heard/seen ‘datemate’ in the wild and I’m grateful for that fact :/

      Plain old ‘mate’ works well for friends here, but there’s no way any human outside of fiction should refer to a sexual partner as their mate.

      I want a crime-fighting partner! But you know, your comment made me think, I can’t think of any crime-fighting duos that aren’t a leader/sidekick dyad. There’s teams, sure – Avengers, Justice League, Doom Patrol etc – but why don’t superheroes come in equality-embracing pairs? Maybe they exist and I just can’t think of any. More research required.

  3. Kimberly

    “Fellow Human Whom I Am Addressing” and “Another human with whom I have formed a relationship involving emotional closeness” both made me laugh. We could long-windedly use those. Hah!

    Fun and personal article, C! Loved it!

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