I remember how mortifying it was when people started calling me Ma’am. I was in my 30s and was still occasionally carded in bars. The “M” word came as quite a shock.
Just as it never occurred to me I would be old enough someday to be called “Ma’am,” it never occurred to me I could get too old for that term. As I edge ever closer to 60, I’m learning to accept the physical changes that come with aging, but I didn’t expect linguistics to be part of the deal.
The first time I noticed it was a year or two ago when my husband and I went out for breakfast. “And what can I get you, Sweetheart?” the waitress said when she took my order. My husband and I laughed about it, but then it happened again within a week. Different venue, same term of endearment that service workers haul out for old ladies.
It’s happening more frequently and I’m starting to get used to it. And I should note that I don’t live in the South, where I got a lot of “Sugars” and “Honeys” when I lived there going on four decades ago, but in the stoic Great Plains. And as much as I’d like to think my neck of the woods has picked up on some Southern charm, I know it’s the gray hair. Okay, okay, getting more white than gray. Or as my (beautiful, young) hair stylist corrects me, “Platinum. People pay big money to get that color.” (Have I mentioned I love my hair stylist?)
“Sweetheart” definitely tops the charts, but “sweetie” and “honey” also come into play. I was returning a grocery cart the other day and the young woman who came running out to my vehicle said, “Oh, I’ll get that for you, sweetie.”
Which is another thing I’ve noticed—it always seems to be young women. I don’t think young men would dare, although they’ll say “Are you sure you don’t want help with those groceries?” My standard answer is “It’s good exercise.” The last young man I said that to laughed and said “Fair enough.”
Compared to the effects of gravity and body parts that have started aching, being called Sweetheart is pretty minor, but it’s a rite of passage I didn’t expect.