Unseriously, now, let's put the smile back in 'hon'

March 27, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

There are times when all the brilliant and high-minded people in this city can't seem to get out of their own way. This "hon" business, for example. Has anyone noticed that we've taken a smile and knocked out most of its teeth?

What started with some good-natured soul tacking "hon" onto a highway welcome sign leading to downtown Baltimore has produced not only charges of sexism and racial exclusionism by the language police, but serious talk among learned university history professors denying "hon" has any peculiarity to Baltimore.

Not to mention last Friday's front-page story in this very newspaper, cruelly headlined: "You don't belong to Baltimore, 'hon.' "

Oh, yeah? Says who? For generations around here, "hon" has been an unself-conscious term of casual affection. If that's not ownership of a term, it's at least a long-term lease. And if people in other parts of the country use it, too, then more power to them. But no community has ever considered pasting "hon" on its highway welcome signs -- or had such a tortured, hand-wringing, anguished time deciding whether such a move would be politically appropriate.

State Sen. Larry Young, for example, echoing certain talk that "hon" is used strictly by white people, wonders aloud if the welcome signs should say, "Welcome to Baltimore, Bro," or if this would make certain white Baltimoreans as uncomfortable as certain black Baltimoreans might be with "hon."

Memo to Sen. Young: You've got to start spending more time around white teen-agers, for whom "bro" is both a standard greeting and an unspoken acknowledgment that the street parlance of black teens has become standard usage.

You want to use "bro" on street signs? That's fine, senator. Let's use "bro" here and "hon" over there, if it makes you happy -- which was the original point, anyway. It's to make people happy. It's to take something as bland and generic as a municipal street sign and give it a little warmth, a little local flavor, and certainly not to make anybody feel left out.

Then there's Mayor Schmoke. He is the most diplomatic of men, always wishing to make all parties in this city feel comfortable. But he now finds himself in an awkward position that should have been settled long ago, when the first "hon" sign appeared and was featured in a front-page photograph in this newspaper.

The mayor had been handed a public relations gift from the gods. He should have led a hearty community chuckle and quietly informed his highway employees to leave the sign alone. It was a no-brainer. Everybody who entered this city from someplace else would have returned home and told their friends about this sweet little sign that captured the essential friendliness of the town.

Instead, some humorless transportation types keep tearing the thing down, until the sign's taken on all sorts of political implications that never should have come to pass.

Last week in Annapolis, for example, the mayor found himself facing this semi-serious legislative proposal to blackmail the city into adopting "hon" or risk loss of state funds. The mayor chuckled, belatedly. He said he'd think about it. By now, though, he'd heard the political rumblings about it and didn't wish to offend anyone.

But it's not that big a deal. Is "hon" mostly a white expression? Yeah, sure. And only certain whites, at that. Over the years, it's mostly been used by working class white ethnics around South and East Baltimore -- but it's used as a casual greeting to people of all persuasions, regardless of economic status, religion or skin color.

Nobody needs a college professor to validate this fact. Spend a few minutes at any Lexington Market stall and find out if it's true. Hang out at a bowling alley. Listen to the radio.

"Hon" is used by disc jockeys who wish to ingratiate themselves by declaring, "We're goin' danny ayshin, hon," and hope nobody notices they arrived in town maybe six weeks ago. Country club types use it to hint that they haven't lost humility. All, of course, with an unspoken, good-natured acknowledgment of its working-class roots. It's so thoroughly woven into the local parlance that, in truth, it approaches cheerful self-parody.

Should we put "Welcome to Baltimore, Bro" on signs? Sure, why not? For that matter, let's acknowledge the richness of all city

cultures and find the appropriate welcome in Polish, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Spanish, Korean, Yiddish. . . .

Or we could admit that none of them has quite that distinctive Baltimore flavor of "hon," and just enjoy the smile, and the anarchic street instinct that stuck it on a road sign. And let it go at that.

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