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In American English, it is acceptable and common that an older man calls a man his junior, "son"—even if the younger man is not the older man's child (or related to him in any way).

Definition of "son," according to Oxford Dictionaries Online:

1.6

(also my son)

Used by an elder person as a form of address for a boy or young man.

Example:

“You’re on private land, son.”

At the same time, I have never heard "daughter" used to address a younger woman. What is the reason for this linguistic divide?


In my preliminary research on this topic, I found a somewhat related question that was asked on the Q&A site, Quora: Why is there the phrase "son of a bitch," but not "daughter of a bitch"? The provided answer is that societies around the world have historically been patriarchal; females were regarded as inherently contemptible.

I'm not sure this explains or has anything to do with my question. I would imagine that even during the time when women were regarded as second-class citizens, polite terms for a senior man to address a girl (or a senior woman to address a woman her junior) still existed.


On a separate note, the dictionary definitions of "son" that I've looked at do not specify the gender of the speaker of this term. However, based on my experience, I had thought that only men use this term. Is there any validity to my understanding? Have you ever heard an older woman call a boy, "son"?

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    It's not so much the lack of a term for the girl, but the specific use of "son" for the boy. Traditionally, when a parent addresses a daughter an "endearing" term such as "sweetie" is used, but similar terms are not used for older boys. "Son" re-enforces the assumption that a male child should behave in a "masculine" (ie, macho) fashion. – Hot Licks Apr 23 '16 at 1:15
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    Don't expect parallelism in traditional language. Differences (inequalities, if you prefer) in life beget differences in language. Language reflects life, but its evolution has a relative independence from changes in society - changes are not mirrored exactly and immediately. – Drew Apr 23 '16 at 1:36
  • In The Philadelphia Story, the father of the character played by Kathryn Hepburn calls her "daughter." This family is quite elite, very rich and proper. – user66965 Apr 23 '16 at 2:04
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    I think any answer to this is going to be pretty speculative... – GoldenGremlin Apr 23 '16 at 2:47
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    In Indian languages, the equivalent for "son/daughter" is used by elders to address young men/women. In Hindi & Urdu "Beta/Beti", Malayalam & Tamil "Makane/Makale", etc. But I've not seen the same happen in English. – NVZ Apr 23 '16 at 3:44
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To answer your last question first, yes, in my experience it is also exclusively used by men. There are approximate equivalents for girls/women (e.g. "lassie", "miss", "darl", "hun") though none so universal as "son" that I can think of. I wouldn't be able to give a reason why.

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Yes to all of the above. Trying to answer "why" questions when it comes to language use can be such a juicy journey, but one that is invariably a closed loop....

I have heard an elder woman call a younger man son, but I think it was in a particular generational/cultural dialect usage. More often it does seem even to be the opposite: "Baby girl" can be interchangeably used with "little mama", "mamasita or mami", or even "boss lady". A boy-child enjoys the usage of "son" but a girl-child is not likewise called "daughter"; she is not "daughterized" but "motherized" instead....hmm....

I've heard young men who are similar in age use "son" with each other as an endearing term, or used to create emphasis, as they would the term "bro" or "brother".

Only on rare occasions have I heard "daughter" used by an elder woman when addressing a younger woman (who is not her blood daughter) and these were limited context - the elder was emphasizing the difference in age but acknowledging an intimacy of connection - speaking as a "mother" would and thereby implying a lesson in deference to the elder's words - justified by their disparity in chronological age - without creating social distance.

(I think the insult "son of a bitch" has more to do with insulting a man by denigrating his mother than with calling a man "son". And, a daughter of a bitch would also be a female dog, so literally would make more sense to say "bitch of a bitch". But I think all of those gender-related expletives really no longer have anything to do with gender and from of address; usages for "s.o.b." and "bastard" and "motherf-er" are all so generalized now.)

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Daughter is not a popular address, metaphorical or not. Son is, either way.

Why? Who knows. Maybe it's too many syllables. We have a great many substitutes that a father might get away with but that would put others in jeopardy of wearing their drinks on their faces:

  • baby girl
  • pumpkin
  • sweet child o mine
  • my baby
  • little one
  • my little girl
  • ...
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Conjecture only, I'm afraid, but since it does seem to be used exclusively by (older) men, is it possible there's some rather veiled, age-related contempt involved in using the term at all? (Assuming one isn't speaking to one's own, actual son.) It seems to be used as a subtle way for one man to assert natural dominance over another one. If that's the case, it would make sense that "daughter" isn't used the same way; as previous posters stated, women have generally not been viewed as socially equal to men, and if a dynamic between an older man and a younger woman did turn into a power struggle, I imagine the tendency would be for the man to jump straight to, erm, less friendly terminology.

Parenthetically, I've heard religious figures (priests, rabbis, etc.) refer to younger women who are not their relatives as "daughter", so it actually is used in the same way as "son", albeit in a more limited context.

  • Hmm not sure I agree. I think "son" is a fairly neutral form of address. It can be polite or condescending, depending on the context. Polite: "Son, how has your day been?" Condescending: "You've got a lot to learn, son." I would say a term like "kid" is used more often for veiled, age-related contempt. On the second point, a religious organization may appropriate a variety of family-derived terminology (father, mother, sister, brother). – Kyle Apr 24 '16 at 18:38

protected by tchrist Apr 24 '16 at 16:49

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