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Hey mate, let’s talk about address terms

Is it ok to call your colleagues “mate”? What about “darl”? AAP Image/Alan Porritt

In 2005, Parliament House’s security guards were banned from using the address term mate.

This decision was quickly rescinded when talkback got wind of the ban. The objection? “This is Australia, mate!”

Not everyone is happy when they’re called bro by a skater kid or love by a tradie. Why are we so touchy about these terms?

And what is going on with mate?

Address terms among friends

Let’s firstly deal with why we use address terms and why life would be less polite without them.

Address terms are not used randomly. They are a strategic tool for accomplishing goals and valuing and positioning ourselves and others within the “tribe”.

In this way, address terms are used to reaffirm relationships. In short, I feel warm and fuzzy about myself and the world when you call me brother, dude or whatever happens to be appropriate to our relationship. I may even feel this way when you call me bitch if we are close enough friends.

Social status and standing are also indexed by these terms.

This is perhaps more subtle in English than it is in other languages, such as Javanese, which I have worked on for a decade.

Until recently, young Javanese kids have called me mas “older brother” and I have called them dik “younger sibling”. Then, I became a father, I got a job and bags formed under my eyes. On my last trip, they began calling me pak “father”.

Address terms also carry the weight of responsibility.

For instance, we expect someone addressed as doctor in English will have certain skills relevant to the term. When West African Wolof people meet, a delicate and sophisticated linguistic dance ensues to downplay one’s status. This is because the higher status person bears financial responsibility for the lower.

But use of address terms is not limited to tribal desires to feel valued. We also use address terms to mitigate what might be potentially offensive acts such as requests, disagreements and to get someone’s attention.

ANU linguist Johanna Rendle-Short has shown how mate is used at the start of an utterance, among other things, to flag something problematic about what has just been said.

When familiar terms of address go wrong

Why then, do address terms such as “mate” sometimes make us angry? Perhaps address terms wouldn’t be so problematic if we only used them with people we know. But we often use these with strangers – and that’s where things go a little pear-shaped.

Silvio Berlusconi tries to cement the relationship between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. EPA/Sergei Chirikov

These terms are risky for users and hearers alike in two main ways.

First, we can use them to offend sensibilities as quickly as we protect them.

Second, the meanings of these terms are always shifting and not everyone is on the same page about what they mean.

We needn’t search long for an address term with which to insult someone. For instance, it goes without saying that the term bitch can be a horrible insult.

Women are often rightly wary about the use of words such as doll, darlin’ or love. Terms referring to women are particularly prone to have a negative tint and even deteriorate over time. As Kate Burridge from Monash points out, the term lord’s use remains remains restricted to deities and certain Englishmen. But the term lady has broadened to refer to women more generally.

That said, one needs to be discerning about these things. A little old man who says “thanks, love” on the tram isn’t necessarily being sexist. We are more likely talking about a man from a different time and place being polite in the way he knows how.

The problem with mate

But what about mate?

Even as a linguist, I am happy to jump on the Straya bandwagon here.

Address terms carry the historical baggage of their users. In the USA, Scott Kiesling has shown how white middle class males use the address term dude due to its links to surfing subculture.

With regard to mate, discussions in my undergraduate and postgraduate classrooms suggest mate can pick up negative baggage via perceptions about class and status of users.

This seems to fly in the face of the egalitarian nature of mateship. If we are to restrict mate’s use only to undesirables, perhaps a parliamentary ban like the one in 2005 is warranted.

This time we can preserve the dignity of Parliament’s security guards by restricting mate’s usage to MPs.

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