sweet talk
photograph by Ed Fotheringham

Have you heard this one? A health-conscious man walks into a (coffee) bar. He’s loaded up on willpower, determined to avoid anything that’s ever brushed up against a granule of sugar. He forces himself to overlook the fruity pastries, the dinner-plate-size cookies, and the chocolate milks disguised as coffee. Resolute, he strides toward the counter, orders a black coffee, and searches for his wallet.

“Will that be it, sweetie?” the barista asks.

And there it is: sugar flying right at him. There’s no escape.

This barista is my barista, at Black Bear Coffee Company in Hendersonville. But I suspect every town in North Carolina boasts a local establishment or two with a friendly, sugar-slinging employee — someone who calls out to every “sweetie” and “honey” and “buttercup” who passes through the doors. Diabetics beware.

Here’s the truth, people of North Carolina: Our language isn’t healthy. We’re living in an age of detailed nutritional labels, black-bean brownies, and taxed soft drinks, but the language of the South still drips with sweetness. We pour syrup upon strangers and friends alike. Anyone you pass might be a peach or a muffin. To a Southerner, every living, breathing soul is coated in sugar.

• • •
 

What I love most about our sugary language is its inability to settle. We start with a base: honey, for example. Before long, honey has morphed into any number of variants: honey-pie, honeybee, honey-baby, honey-bunch, hun. It’s as if any single sweet ingredient can produce a tableful of desserts. A whole linguistic menu with which to greet your neighbors.

Anyone might become pie. Sweetie pie, sugar-pie, honey-pie, cutie-pie. A stranger could be a fruit (peach), a vegetable disguised as a fruit (pumpkin), or even a flower that sounds like a vegetable (sweet pea). Any item in the world with a hint of sweetness is fair game.

I’ve tried not to dwell too long on why we in the South gravitate toward food to address other people. I worry about certain cannibalistic tendencies buried in our DNA. But the truth is that this phenomenon stretches far beyond the South: English speakers have been naming one another foodstuffs for centuries. Some of these terms — cabbage, bag-pudding, prawn — have thankfully faded from usage.

ed fotheringham

To a Southerner, every living, breathing soul is coated in sugar. photograph by Ed Fotheringham

Other parts of the world, too, rely on food to show their affection. In Indonesia, someone might call her partner the “fruit of my heart” (buah hatiku). The French-speaking world didn’t let go of cabbage as easily as we did; people still call one another petit chou: “little cabbage.”

The Oxford English Dictionary traces “honey” as a term of endearment all the way back to the 14th century. When it first cropped up, other extensions emerged — honeycomb and honeysuckle — but these deviations seem to have died out prior to the 17th century. According to linguist David Crystal, the 20th-century South helped to bring honey back to life with honey-child.

After all, we couldn’t let good honey go to waste.

• • •
 

Naturally, people all across our wide-reaching country continue to use pet names — food-inspired and otherwise — mostly in whispers. In the South, we don’t reserve our sweet language for our partners behind closed doors. We’re public and egalitarian with our endearment.

No one seems to know precisely why these terms have persisted and why, in some cases, they originated in the South and not in other regions of our country. I have three theories:

1. We like sweets. The South is a land of food, and our love of food flavors everything — even our love of one another. What greater compliment could you give than to let a perfect stranger know that you value him as much as you value your dumplings?

2. We’re polite. I observed a colleague at my university wake a sleeping student by tapping the desk and saying, “You can’t sleep in here, sweetie.” Even in conflict, we sweeten and soften. Bless our hearts.

3. The weather’s warm. In “Terms of Endearment,” Garrison Keillor’s hilarious 2006 account of traveling to the South, he writes of having his frigid Midwestern sensibilities defrosted by the calls of sweetie and darling here. The warm weather, the logic goes, makes us warmer people, physically and linguistically.

I suppose a fourth option could be the cannibal thing.

• • •
 

I’m sugared and sweetied a few times a day — at gas stations and restaurants and coffee shops.

I’ve personally never honey-bunned anyone. Not even my wife. There are no peaches or pumpkins in my life. No cupcakes or sugar-pies. Despite our deep roots in North Carolina, no one in my family has ever been keen on sweet pet names. We’re a welcoming, loving, and sweet-toothed bunch, but my grandmothers never assigned me a sugary pseudonym; my parents don’t call my sister or me any flavor of pie or cake. Perhaps, if my third theory holds true, the chilly winters here in the mountains simply cooled us off.

Yet even though my tongue lacks the ability to sweeten, I don’t shiver at the sound of these terms. I’m sugared and sweetied a few times a day — at gas stations and restaurants and coffee shops — and I hardly notice it. As if the air itself were laced with powdered sugar, I inhale this language without second thought.

Recently, I’ve been asking non-Southern strangers how they feel about being addressed as dessert. I’ve leaned over to vacationing couples in the aforementioned coffee shop and asked Northern transplants shopping at the bookstore, “How do you feel about being called sweetie?” Nearly everyone admits to some initial discomfort with the practice.

I can’t really relate, as I’ve been breathing in this language for most of my life, but I try to imagine what the first exposure to a public sweetening might feel like. It must be something like amnesia. Initially you wonder, “Do I know you? Have I somehow forgotten your face?” You stare and stare. Then the haze clears, and you come to terms with the fact that this waitress, a stranger, has called you honey-pie in front of a roomful of people.

It’s the intimacy that’s unnerving and welcoming, all in one breath. And therein lies the beauty of our unhealthy language. With every peach and sweet pea, we fling open that tiny, delicately wrapped box of private language and give it freely to anyone we meet. Our tongues suggest we care for everyone as we would a son or daughter. On the tailwinds of a word like sugar-pie flies the suggestion that we will feed and house and care for this stranger. We’re a step away from asking — as my grandmothers always have — for a little sugar on the cheek.

pumpkin muffin peach

Pumpkin, muffin, peach. photograph by Ed Fotheringham

Naturally, not everyone welcomes this intimacy. Not everyone wants to be linguistically adopted by a barista or store clerk. Sometimes people merely want a latte or a pack of gum, not an invitation to Sunday dinner. I understand. But just keep breathing that sweet air. You’ll adapt.

• • •
 

Actually, language is more like honey than it is like air. It’s always moving, slowly — changing shape, filling in gaps. Words emerge and fade away. Their meanings thicken and thin. They stick and slide away.

We’ve been using sweetness to talk about one another since the 13th century, at least. Sweetheart is more than 700 years old. Honey is more than 600. The Oxford English Dictionary finds evidence of the term cinnamon as an address in the 14th century. In the subsequent centuries, all manner of names arise — sweetkin and sucket, among them. Strangely, despite this long-standing and ever-changing tradition of sweetness, sugar doesn’t make an appearance until the 1930s.

Like honey, the South has kept sugar alive, and with it, we’ve baked all manner of names: sugar-pie, sugar daddy, sugar-britches.

The word itself is old. For centuries, it has been used in literal and figurative ways, but the first verifiable evidence of its use as a personal address doesn’t come until around 85 years ago. Perhaps our ancestors found the word too easy. Too unimaginative. Too on the nose. Instead, they preferred terms like pow-sodie, which referred to a sheepshead broth or to a drink of spirits and spices called a posset (15th century).

But we’ve taken sugar proudly. Like honey, the South has kept sugar alive, and with it, we’ve baked all manner of names: sugar-pie, sugar daddy, sugar-britches. More will undoubtedly come as our language rolls on, like a sticky, slow-motion river.

Given this fluidity, I’ve been tinkering around, trying to come upon some new pet names for our modern, health-conscious context: How are you, tofu? What else can I get you, broccoli-pie? Good morning, my little sugar substitute.

Nothing rings just right yet. Splenda might work. Though, if I’m honest, it sounds a bit like the name of a superhero or a rural Norwegian town. Rice-cake sticks near our pie motif while remaining sugarless. But everyone knows rice cakes taste like a cardboard box’s uppity cousin, so the name would essentially call someone bland.

This search for healthy alternatives is a fool’s errand. Here’s why: Our sweet terms not only convey intimacy, they also suggest indulgence. Each of our sugary names implies a pleasure in the person’s company. A waitress’s call of honey-pie suggests that she’d love to talk longer, to sit a spell if she could. She’s allowing herself this brief taste — this tiny interaction — like she might nibble on a chocolate bar between shifts. You’re sweet and rich and tempting, but we’ve got to keep our heads here. This combination of intimacy and indulgence gives the stranger a sense that the waitress would welcome him into the family not only as an act of kindness but also because she truly wants to.

It’s not only, Come to Sunday dinner. It’s also, We’d love to have you.

• • •
 

Linguists debate the future of regional speech. Many believe that regional dialects are shrinking or disappearing in our ever-mobile, easily accessible country. We don’t stay in our regions as long; we move for jobs and weather; we hear voices from all over the world with a click of a button. Dialects and regional vernacular collide and merge and, sometimes, vanish along the way.

pumpkin cupcake sugar

Sugar-pie, cupcake, sugar. photograph by Ed Fotheringham

Some doomsday predictions claim that regional dialects will cease to exist. We’ll all speak one flat version of English, from California to the Carolinas, in this sad future world. Most linguists, however, predict that regional speech will simply change, given the shifting demographics. Our regional dialects aren’t dying; they’re merely changing.

Another barista in my local coffee shop is Russian. Her heavily accented English is seamless and strong but always growing. She tells me that she has taken to calling friends honey and sweetie, under the influence of the other, sweet-tongued barista. But she hasn’t grown comfortable enough to use the words with customers and strangers. Yet.

Sometimes we forget that not only is our language influenced by the outside, but we also influence the outside. Not only do newcomers to the South change the way we speak, but we also change the way they speak. This sweet language could just as easily spread as it could shrink.

Whatever the future holds for our honey-dripping words, may we cling to the openness of our language. May we always make the stranger family, the newcomer an old friend. After all, our identities are stuck to these words. They define and reflect us, all in one breath. If you are what you eat, you are also what you speak, and Sugar, in the South, the two happen to be one and the same.

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Jeremy B. Jones teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University. His memoir "Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland" won the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year Award in nonfiction, a gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award. His essays appear in Oxford American, The Iowa Review, and Brevity, among others.