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From Now vaccinated, third grader who asked Joe Biden a question at town hall gets to visit the White House:

Biden responded directly to Layla [who is 9 years old, as given in the article], explaining that kids were not at a high of a risk of getting severe COVID-19 infection and that the vaccine for children wasn't ready just yet.

"Don't be scared, honey. Don't be scared. You're going to be fine, and we're going to make sure mommy's fine, too," Biden said.

The dictionary definition of 'honey' in this context is: (informal) darling; sweetheart (usually as a form of address). This sounds like an awfully intimate way to address an unrelated child. But Biden was speaking on the record, which means he must be choosing his words carefully, so I'd like to confirm.

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4 Answers 4

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It was hard to find a dictionary that had it, but here it is:

(sometimes initial capital letter) an affectionate or familiar term of address, as to a child or romantic partner (sometimes offensive when used to strangers, casual acquaintances, subordinates, etc., especially by a male to a female). — Random House Dictionary via Dictionary.com

It's not all that common, especially when used for a child you don't know, but it's something I've heard before, typically coming from women or people Biden's age. More often than not, the child addressed is a girl. The familiarity of the expression is supposed to be comforting to the child (not that it always hits its mark in this regard).

Hon is another term that's used similarly, a shortening of "honey". It's probably just as popular; both enjoy a lot of usage in some populations to refer to adults.

Related is the term "honey child", though in my experience this isn't used in the area that Biden is from.

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    IMO, it would be natural to use a term of endearment if, say, you encountered a lost little girl who was clearly scared or crying.
    – DjinTonic
    Dec 20, 2021 at 3:47
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    I'm not from North America but my mind immediately goes to pop culture, where the stereotypical matronly waitress in the stereotypical American diner calls all her customers a familiar "honey", regardless of age, gender or if they've even met before. I suppose it would vary wildly by state and within states how accepted it is for which kinds of people to call which kinds of people "honey".
    – Jasmijn
    Dec 20, 2021 at 11:10
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    This particular term of endearment is especially common in the southeastern United States, and among the African American community (but obviously not limited to those demographics, as Biden shows). I was addressed as "honey" just yesterday by a grocery store employee. When it comes to addressing unrelated children, maybe modern American society is more nuclear than some, but as Graham notes, some term of endearment is common everywhere (dear, sweetheart, champ, luv). Dec 20, 2021 at 14:32
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    @YosefBaskin While a man wouldn't normally refer to a boy as honey, it's not at all uncommon for an older woman, regardless of how "tough" the boy is.
    – Barmar
    Dec 20, 2021 at 15:19
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    “What can I getcha, hon?” is a staple of the TV/movie diner waitress.
    – StephenS
    Dec 21, 2021 at 4:45
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Not only is this normal in the US in my experience (as a visitor), but I think you can generalise this to it being normal to treat children familiarly in most countries.

In the UK it certainly is completely normal. The familiar term changes depending on where you are, of course - "duck" is the equivalent for much of the north of England, for example - but the concept remains the same.

In many countries, this is even formalised in the language. French, Italian, German, and related languages all have a word for "you" which is used with people you're familiar with, and all adults address all children using that form. (For that reason it can be rude to use that form with adults you don't know.) Japanese does something similar, where adults generally don't use the "respectful" form of grammar with children.

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    I'd say that the T-V distinction is somewhat tangential to the question (by the way, Early Modern English still had it but it went out of use, except for some dialects). I think what the OP was more concerned with was the use of an endearment that he found in his dictionary to be more geared towards adult use, between romantic partners, not the mere fact that you often use, as an adult, some condescending form of address when speaking to a child (I wouldn't say it's good to do so, just that we're more or less all guilty of doing it :-) ).
    – Gábor
    Dec 20, 2021 at 17:03
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    @Gábor Yes, I agree. In Britain where the word would not have been "honey" but perhaps "sweetheart" - it would have been quite natural for a man of Biden's age to address a nine-year-old girl in that way. And perhaps because I'm of a similar age to Joe Biden I would certainly defend its use as endearing, and a means of putting the child at ease. I think the word is "avuncular". Had the subject been a nine-year-old boy, I don't think he would have used "honey". Not sure what he might have used - perhaps "son" - but that's a bit dated now.
    – WS2
    Dec 21, 2021 at 0:31
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    Just chiming in with my two cents as a Londoner: I find using "honey" in the context OP asks about to be fine/commonplace, but would personally probably use "dear", which seems less intimate. I have one female friend of a similar age who uses "hon" when addressing anyone in a friendly manner, whether younger or older, which I personally found very strange/flirtatious until I just got used to it. It definitely depends on the social context; I probably wouldn't find terms like "honey" and "love" to feel that way if, say, coming from the person checking out my shopping.
    – Jivan Pal
    Dec 21, 2021 at 14:16
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    @JivanPal "Honey" in the UK is mostly copied from people watching US TV, the same way "no worries" is copied from watching Australian TV, so there's an age cutoff on who uses it. I was going to expand my answer into customer-facing staff using familiar terms like "love" or "dear", but I thought that wasn't really on topic for the OP's question.
    – Graham
    Dec 21, 2021 at 14:24
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    @Graham In my home county of Norfolk, they don't do "lad". Not until you cross the Nene into Lincolnshire do you encounter lads. In Norfolk it would undoubtedly be "boy" - but pronounced somewhere between "boy" and "buy".
    – WS2
    Dec 21, 2021 at 15:37
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I lived in the US for roughly 30 years, and I’d say that this usage is quite common, and nothing out of the ordinary.

As someone else said, it’s avuncular, and seems quite appropriate when someone of Biden’s age addresses a young girl who is feeling uneasy and in need of sympathy and reassurance. It’s nice.

I like it when waitresses in Texan BBQ joints call me “hon”.

Expanding the scope a bit, things like this have interesting regional and cultural variations, in both the US and the UK. As a male 19-year-old, I moved from the south of England to Yorkshire, in the north, and was quite taken aback when male strangers (like shop clerks and bus conductors) called me “luv”.

In Australia, “mate” is almost always friendly, but in the UK it’s often confrontational.

In the US, I think that “pal” is usually confrontational (in the areas where I lived, anyway).

It’s amusing when Penny on “Big Bang Theory” calls her Cal Tech uber-geek neighbors “sweetie”, but don’t know if that’s typical for a Nebraskan 20-something waitress talking to male post-docs.

Geography, culture, age, gender, and context are all important when deciding what forms of address are “normal”.

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    I think this answer points out something essential, which is that regionality and also age/sex distinctions are important. While Biden addressing an unknown 9 year old as honey in that context is absolutely fine as is use of hon from Texan waitresses, trying to use "hon" as a 30 year old male waiter to a woman could definitely get you at least angry stares. Using "luv" to address a male pretty much anywhere in the US is also likely to get you into trouble.
    – DRF
    Dec 21, 2021 at 8:37
  • In Australia, mate as a reference is friendly ("he's a mate of mine"). Mate said to/at someone; not so much ("oy mate, what's your problem?")
    – mcalex
    Dec 21, 2021 at 10:04
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    It's interesting how terms of endearment can become threats. Here's an example from the early-'90s TV mini-series G.B.H., set in the North of England. (You'll have to imagine just how threatening the tone is.) “You know, it’s funny, but where I come from, friend, you can call someone ‘friend’, but it doesn’t really mean that you’re a friend. Far from it. You know what I mean? Friend? — Now give me that box, before we break whatever we can get hold of!!!”
    – gidds
    Dec 21, 2021 at 11:17
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    Yeah, I guess words like mate, pal, friend can all be quite threatening. Sentences that start with “listen, pal … “, or “oy, mate … “ are usually not intended to be friendly.
    – bubba
    Dec 21, 2021 at 12:08
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    I found that "luv" is used to address customers not only in the British-Irish isles, but also, tellingly, in Newfoundland.
    – gerrit
    Dec 21, 2021 at 13:09
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As an american with family all over (my own from the south and midwest, my wife's from the north and california) I can say with confidence that it's a common term for "person much younger than ones self" especially when you don't know their name or as a term of endearment, in the south and midwest. Though it is falling out of favor with people 40 and under as the other use of "honey" as a name (any man to any woman who 'obviously' isn't as capable as said man. Sexism Will Apply) has made the under-40 crowd leery of it in general. That being said my mom was a kindergarden/pre-k teacher for decades and used it universally, and I had an english teacher who referred to all her students as "her hons" (hon being short for honey.) My other older southern/midwest relatives use it occasionally, usually when addressing a girl. I've never heard my yankee/california in-laws use it though!

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  • This answer is superior, IMHO, because it addresses regional variations in usage. Indeed, Honey, Sugar, Sweetie, Sweetheart, and Darling are all common forms used by adults to address children in the South and Midwest.
    – Jeffiekins
    Dec 23, 2021 at 5:17

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