Data points: address terms 11/17/10

Two address terms that caught my ear recently because they struck me as no longer widely in use:

(1) pal: in an episode of the 50s tv serial Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (Youtube for this episode here, Tom Corbett website here), one of the crew members to another, on the radio: “Ok, pal, she’s all yours” (referring to the next rocket firing).

(2) sport: in one episode of the gay porn film Arcade on Route 9 (Joe Gage for Titan Media) an older trucker (Ken Mack) hooks up with a young farmboy (Cole Ryan) and introduces him to the ways of gay sex, addressing him as “sport” throughout the encounter, as in a reference to “your big stiff dirty-boy boner; I’m here for you, sport”. (The farmboy mostly addresses the trucker as “sir”, leading to this weird bit of sex talk: “Suck my fuckin’ hard boner, sir”.)

These are both address terms used by men to men — a rich lexical field on its own, without getting into the full collection of address terms available in English. Address terms in general are famously complex pragmatically, varying dramatically in their import depending on who’s using them to who in what contexts, and sociolinguistically, with different uses by different social groups, changing over time (some discussion on-line in my 1974 paper “Hey, whatsyourname!” — earlier title, “Hey, lady, you dropped your piano”).

Pal is one of a set of nouns (like kid, boy, and man) that have uses that ascribe some characteristic to a referent, indeed one of the subset of these nouns that are inherently relational. Most English nouns expressing the relation of male friendship (“He’s my buddy”) have uses as address terms that continue to express friendship: mate, buddy, bud, pal (with very different sociolinguistic conditions on their use). These can then go on to use as general male-address terms, without any ascription of friendship, and even as challenging vocatives (cop to driver: “Hey, pal, you can’t park here”); for many speakers, friend has gone this route fully, and no longer has any suggestion of friendship, in fact conveys social distance.

So, without the context, we can’t tell whether a vocative use of pal conveys male friendship, neutral male reference, or socially distant male reference. The context for (1) rules out the third possibility, but the other two are still viable.

But what strikes people I’ve talked to about (1) is that vocative pal is not something they’d use, nor can they recall occasions where they’ve heard it; it sounds quaint, like something in an old movie (with smart-talking reporters, cops, private eyes, bartenders, and the like). It’s a high-masculinity address term, but somewhat old-fashioned.

Well, these things go in and out of fashion.

(In separate developments, some male-address terms — guys, notably — have generalized to use for both sexes, and some have gone on to uses as exclamations rather than address terms: boy, man, and now dude, as reported here.)

Sport, as in (2), actually falls in with the characteristic-ascribing address terms historically, via its use as a noun referring to

U.S. A young man; a fellow. Now rare. (OED, draft revision of September 2010)

[1901 cite] A small club, called the University, which is chiefly kept up by the young men{em}the ‘sports’, as they are called in this part of the world.

(Connections to sporty, good sport, sportsman, and slang sport ‘gambler, betting man’ aren’t at all clear.)

To complicate things still further, the OED also has a subentry for:

Chiefly Austral. and N.Z. Used as a friendly form of address, esp. between men who do not know each other. Also occas. in pl. Cf. old sport n. at OLD adj.

I feel pretty comfortable saying that this antipodal use of sport is not what’s going on in the very American context of (2).

However, it might be that people who use sport for male address (not always from men; a hooker could address a potential john as sport) see it as coming from a different subterritory of the address-term domain: names (like Joe) and nicknames (like Mac) converted to generalized male address (in which case, there’s some inclination to lower-case the word in writing): “Hey, mac, can you tell me how to get to the arcade?”. (This one makes it into the OED, draft revision of June 2009: “colloq. Used as a familiar form of address to a (male) stranger”, with both capitalized and lower-cased cites.)

My suggestion is that some people might connect address-term sport to Sport used as a nickname (in the way that other nouns — Killer, for instance — and many adjectives — Red and Tiny, for instance — are so used).

But, as with pal, male-address sport strikes me as somewhat old-fashioned. Somehow it got written into Ken Mack’s lines in Arcade on Route 9 to establish his persona as older (and more experienced) trucker talking to a kid, establishing himself as the boy’s “best buddy” who’s going to teach his very willing student about “that dirty sex stuff”.

3 Responses to “Data points: address terms 11/17/10”

  1. Zeugmoids « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Data points: address terms 11/17/10 [...]

  2. Space cadet « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] came up in this blog here, in connection with the address term pal in an episode of the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet tv show; [...]

  3. Brief notice: boss 3/12/13 | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] terms are a long-standing interest of mine. Discussion of pal and sport here, boy here, and medical address terms [...]

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