The "sweetie" problem

Language is a mutable, fluid construct, open to the vagaries of context, and that's the way I like i

On April Fool's Day, Barack Obama could be found doing exactly what he has been doing for the past year - glad-handing excitable would-be voters. This time he was at a clothes manufacturing plant in Allentown, Pennsylvania, meeting and greeting the predominantly female workforce.

All went well up to (and, indeed, following) the moment when he reportedly called one of the workers "sweetie". In fact, what with Obama being given two leotards as gifts for his daughters and happily asking the local pastor for his prayers, everyone seems to have been having a fine old time. It was only a few scattered commentators who suggested that we back up and consider what US News and World Report called "Obama's 'sweetie' problem".

Writing on that magazine's website, the political pundit Bonnie Erbe noted that "sweetie" was "a paternalistic way to address a woman if ever there was one". Responding to Erbe's article, the women's blog Jezebel.com opened the question up to readers, posting a photo of Obama and asking: "Would you let this man call you 'sweetie'?"

The vehemence and volume of the replies surprised me. "I hate it when people call me sweetie," was the first comment. "It always comes off as condescending." "I don't let anyone call me sweetie," was another. "It's rude, it's sexist, and it's unwelcome unless you're my husband. And even with him it's too fucking sugary for me." Then there was: "No one calls me 'sweetie'. Not even my mother. And if some random stranger does call me sweetie, I'm not even nice about it. Evil stare and 'You don't know me well enough to call me sweetie . . .' in reply usually shuts 'em up." Other, similar terms of endearment also came in for a kicking, one woman commenting that she had once almost "de-testicled" a man for calling her "honey".

Jezebel.com has a feminist slant, yet it seemed unusual that visitors to the site should respond so ferociously to a matter of sexism - a reminder of just how much these expressions upset people. In many respects, the anger was understandable. One commenter pointed out that epithets such as "sweetie" are relics of a wildly sexist past. Undoubtedly true. For a sense of how such terms have been used to subjugate women, you have only to watch an episode of the current BBC Television drama Mad Men, set in an advertising firm in the 1960s, and in which the likes of "sweetie" and "honey" are spat out as part of a vernacular designed to grind the female workers into submission.

Yet I was surprised by suggestions that these terms are offensive in any and every context, whoever is saying them, because, try as I might to awaken my gremlin of inner anger - that gremlin who can almost always be guaranteed to maraud forth at the merest hint of sexism - this particular issue just doesn't arouse it. When it comes to Obama's comment, I can naturally see why people have questioned his use of the diminutive. When the person using the word "sweetie" is a powerful politician, the usage always has the potential to seem condescending. And yet I tend to think that if this is one of the bigger slip-ups on his route through the electoral process, he's doing pretty well (and the presence of Michelle Obama at his side suggests that, at the very least, he has no problem being around strong women).

When it comes to words such as "sweetie" and "honey" being used in other contexts where there is no obvious power imbalance that is being exploited, no obvious trace of condescension and no nastiness in the phrasing, I really can't find the terms offensive, despite their history. A lot of my friends and some colleagues use casual terms of endearment with me, and so long as I'm sure of a genial intent - which, in fact, I always have been - I genuinely find the endearments just that: endearing. A part of me really dislikes the idea of these words being shut down. In a cold world, their warmth is often welcome.

For me, context is all. Another good example of this is "girl", which is always supposed to be hugely offensive when used to describe any female over the age of about 16. Certainly if someone - man or woman - barked the word at me and asked me to fetch their paperwork I would be completely pissed off. But when my mother describes one of her best friends, a woman in her mid-nineties, as "a great girl" it makes me smile. And when she says she's "going for a night out with the girls", referring to a group of her friends, all in their sixties, that cheers me up, too.

Language is a mutable, fluid construct, open to the vagaries of context, and that's the way I like it. For those who hate terms of endearment, however, who find them blatantly disrespectful in all instances, one of those angry commenters simply suggests that you respond with the line: "'I'm doing well, cupcake, how are you?' It gives them pause, and they never do it again." You can't say fairer than that.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian