You don't belong to Baltimore, 'hon'

March 25, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

How could such a little word cause such a big shlemozzle?

VTC Why is Charm City at odds with itself over an informal courtesy title, bestowed for the most part at the benign discretion of waitresses in greasy spoon restaurants from Locust Point to Highlandtown and beyond?

What is there to say about "hon"?

Everybody knows that many people are loyal to it and believe it is unique to this city. Many also think it is cherished as a salutation all over town and used by most Baltimoreans.

Sad to say there's hardly any evidence for this.

Joseph L. Arnold, a historian of this region at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said, "I never thought of it being peculiarly Baltimore. I heard it in the Middle West growing up."

Frank Shivers, who teaches regional history at the Johns Hopkins University and wrote a book on the language of #F Baltimore and Maryland writers, said "I hear 'hon' in other places; I'm sure it's not indigenous."

Matched against these colder judgments are the sentiments and observations of Gene M. Raynor, who declares it "a wonderful word." Mr. Raynor is the administrator of the Maryland Administrative Board of Election Laws. He was born and reared here. "I've traveled to all parts of the globe," he said. "I haven't heard it anywhere but Baltimore."

Then there's Chester Tokarski, the owner of the Waterfront Hotel, also native born, who said he doesn't recall ever having heard it outside this town.

These are sincere solid citizens, all. Their disagreement called for resort to the real expert, the late H. L. Mencken, who knew more about words, their meanings and where they came from than most people did or do. He wrote it all down in his massive study, "The American Language."

So what did the Sage of Baltimore have to say about "hon"?

Very, very little.

Mencken mentions it only on page 168 of "The American Language." It is one of a list of words formed by "the process called clipping, back-shortening, or back formation -- a sort of instinctive search for short roots in long words."

The longer word, as everyone knows, is "honey."

"Hon" is also listed in the "Dictionary of American Slang" as a "A term of endearment, usu. in direct address."

All words included in this book are those "frequently used or intelligible to a rather large portion of the general American public." No Baltimore association is mentioned.

To put the final nail in the notion of the uniqueness of our idiom, John Goodspeed's "A Fairly Compleat Lexicon of Baltimorese" does not include the word.

Sorry, hon.

But none of this gets to the cause of the current hubbub. The blame or credit for that belongs either to Baltimore state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman or the unknown pimpernel who prowls the median strip of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway south of Westport, the so-called Hon Man who repeatedly tacks the word HON (always in capitals) onto the "Welcome to Baltimore" sign that greets the incoming traffic.

Ms. Hoffman, sympathetic to the stealthy Hon Man, threatens to hold up $1 million in city highway funds until Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agrees to accept the addition to the sign.

The flap has generally stimulated a questioning of the word's legitimacy. State Sen. Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat, has offered an alternative greeting, the word "bro" instead of "hon."

One contributor to this newspaper suggested that "hon" is sexist, exclusionary, racist. And even those who feel endeared to it admit it is not a word of currency among blacks.

"I've heard it used by black people but not frequently," conceded Mr. Raynor. "I think black people prefer honey."

Without taking an extensive poll on the issue, it would be risky to generalize about how the majority of the people in Baltimore, who are black, regard this homely term. A spot check produced an unfocused picture but one suggesting a bias against the word.

When Eric Williamson, a security guard at a bank on Cold Spring Lane, was asked what he thought of "hon," he hesitated, then said that "in some way" he felt offended.

When pressed, he allowed that he couldn't define the source of the offense and then pleaded unfamiliarity with the term.

"No waitress ever called me that," he said. "We [African-Americans] never use it. We never hear it."

But then there's Bernice Murray, a receptionist at the Waxter Center on Cathedral Street, who declared it "endearing."

"I have a daughter who uses it all the time," she said.

Esther Jones, a parking control agent going about her work in Hampden, was also uncertain of her feelings about it. So she told a story.

It was about one of her black colleagues who at roll call one morning made a presentation which he finished with the word "honey." For this he was jocularly corrected by a white supervisor who suggested he should have used the abridged version.

L That's not a word in our vocabulary, he reportedly answered.

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