Last week on the Visual Thesaurus, William Safire and Nancy Friedman both weighed in on "Bittergate," the political furor that arose over Senator Barack Obama's comments about small-town Pennsylvanian voters ("It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion"). Now Obama has found himself under the microscope again for his use of a particular word, but this time the context is more "sweet" than "bitter." Responding to a question from television reporter Peggy Agar at an automobile plant outside of Detroit, Obama said, "Hold on one second, sweetie." Later he left Agar a voicemail apologizing about using the word sweetie to address her, calling it a "bad habit of mine." Lisa Anderson of the Chicago Tribune wryly wrote, "Welcome to 'Sweetie-gate,' a place paved with eggshells, where terms of endearment turn into political peccadilloes at the drop of a diminutive."
Obama told Agar that he meant "no disrespect," and Agar for her part said she wasn't particularly offended. "Frankly I have been called worse during interviews than just 'sweetie' so that really didn't take me aback right then," Agar said, adding, "I felt more offended that he didn't answer the question." But even if Obama did not intend his use of sweetie as offensive, observers agreed that it was hardly an appropriate word for a presidential candidate to use when addressing a female reporter, running the risk of sounding dismissive or condescending to a professional woman.
As Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, told the Tribune, sweetie as a term of endearing address is "a little ill-chosen to be a word you're using with a reporter, unless the reporter happens to be your sweetheart or lover." Indeed, the Visual Thesaurus wordmap for sweetie connects it to sweetheart and other words with a primary meaning of "a person loved by another person." Close by in the constellation of words for loved people are darling, dearie, and honey. All of these words can be used as "vocatives," as linguists say, which means they can be forms of address ("Come here, sweetie") rather than just plain nouns ("She's my sweetie").
Sweetie, formed from the adjective sweet and the diminutive suffix -ie, has been used as a vocative for quite a long time, especially in the United States. It appears as "sweet-ee" in a bit of comic verse from 1778 that is also notable for its early use of Yankee to refer to Americans:
O My Yankee, my Yankee,
And O my Yankee, my sweet-ee,
And was its nurse North asham'd
Because such a bantling hath beat-ee?
("North" in the verse is Lord North, the British prime minister during the American Revolution, and bantling is an old word meaning "brat" or "bastard.")
In contemporary American usage, vocatives like sweetie vary quite a bit according to region, age, and level of familiarity. As the Tribune notes, "Southerners so routinely sprinkle sugar, darlin', and honey on conversations with strangers that they would be shocked if offense were taken." Obama's "Sweetie-gate" opened an opportunity for pundits to mull over the acceptable social boundaries for terms of endearment, particularly those used by men to refer to women. In the Detroit Free Press, Mitch Albom writes that sugar, gorgeous, and cutie pie are "OK from your grandmother, your aunt or the 80-year-old immigrant dressmaker who says, 'OK, gorgeous, are you ready for your fitting?' But from a politician, a business associate or a stranger on a bus, they're bad."
So if you're thinking of using sweetie, watch out for the context. Especially if you're running for president.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer