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I heard this expression twice now this week on current TV. That 90's Show on Netflix (a preview) and NCIS: Hawaii. I don't remember the exact wording but they went something like this:

  • From That 90's Show "I'm a rock star, baby!" said by a wife to I think her husband.

  • And on NCIS: Hawaii, "Joe Smith is back, baby!", said by a male agent to two co-workers, one male and one female. (Joe Smith was the agent's undercover identity.) Both were said for comedic effect.

Some other examples:

"Do you have a date?"
"You know it, baby!"

"Are you taking a trip?
"I'm going to Vegas, baby!"

I was wondering what the origins of this use of the term "baby" are. Also is it sexist? I assume some women might find this term objectionable if used by a man as if they were being called "sweetheart". And some men might object to being called "baby" by another man.

I found this definition from a jazz glossary which doesn't relate directly, but seems to be a non-sexist usage of the term.

baby: term of endearment used interchangeably between the sexes or man-to-man or woman-to-woman

I definitely don't have in mind an amatory usage, nor just a casual calling of people "baby". It's the interjection that expresses excitement that fev mentioned in the comments that I have in mind.

... How to appropriately use the word "baby" as in the pattern " ____ baby ___"; for example, "run baby run"?. Basically, here "baby" is an interjection that expresses excitement, and has little, if anything, left from the slang use of the word to name attractive people or one's other half. But the origins do overlap.

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    I'm not going to answer your main question, but let me just say that what is "sexist" is in the eye of the beholder and subject to circumstance. Hundreds if not thousands of pop songs have used the word "baby" as a term of endearment, without anyone batting an eyelash; nevertheless, it is not something one would use to address a stranger, to whom it might be considered overly familiar or condescending. There are cases in which it could definitely be seen as sexist, but these would depend on context, tone, and the tone of the rest of the conversation.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 21:12
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    This is related: How to appropriately use the word "baby" as in the pattern " ____ baby ___"; for example, "run baby run"?. Basically, here "baby" is an interjection that expresses excitement, and has little, if anything, left from the slang use of the word to name attractive people or one's other half. But the origins do overlap.
    – fev
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 21:16
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    Strongly related.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 23:42
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    Sock it to me - baby!
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 2:28
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    Out of all your examples, the only one I could see being used in an amatory manner is "you know it, baby", and even then that's stretching it. Every single use reads very naturally as an exclamation, serving the exact same lingual purpose as "WOOOO" would in the same place. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 18:13

5 Answers 5

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This is an area where language is changing fairly rapidly, so the answer is a bit complicated. I will do my best to address this question from the purely "non-political" angle of how is realistically best to use this term appropriately for someone whom English is a second language, rather than address any larger philosophical point about the word.

There really are plenty of cases in the English language where the term "baby" can be slipped into in a fairly innocuous, non-offensive way. For instance, if you're about to go on vacation and you say "I'm going to Vegas, yeeeeah baby!", it'll generally be perceived as though you're making kind of an exaggerated statement expressing excitement. In this sense it isn't really perceived as though you are directing the term toward the other person at all, but rather that you are just reciting a kind of mannerism people use when they're feigning excitement, or you're playing up a certain character.

Second, there's the standpoint of using the term "baby" in slang as a pet name, or in an "amatory" way, to refer to a loved one in a relationship. When it's used in this way it's gender neutral. Again, from the standpoint of someone trying to learn to speak the language, you ought to know that the use of the term "baby" in this sense is, at least in 2023, extremely common - in thousands of song lyrics, screenplays, and so on - and not generally seen as unusual.

Third, there are also certain circles or subcultures where the term "baby" can also be loosely used in general when addressing people, usually friends but possibly anyone you are friendly with, in a sort of endearing way. This is not super common as a slang term in so-called "General American English," but there are certain subcultures or dialects where the term will be used a bit more freely in this way. As you note in your link above on slang in the jazz community, the term has a history of use in African American Vernacular English, particularly a few decades back. It certainly isn't exclusive to AAVE though - for instance, in my experience, a lot of the older Italian-American folks living in Philadelphia, typically women, will throw this term around quite a bit, along with the ubiquitous "hun", which has become kind of a shibboleth for the Philadelphia dialect. There are no doubt countless other subcultures or dialects where the term is used a bit more loosely in this way. All of these things have kind of drifted in and out of style in the last few decades as societal attitudes have shifted.

If you are learning to speak the language, you should be aware that this particular sense is kind of a "risky" use of the word "baby." Its appropriateness varies pretty significantly depending on the specific dialect, subculture, or context or setting you use it in. Calling someone "baby" in the wrong situation can certainly be seen unintentionally as sexist or demeaning. In general, unless you have an intuitive sense for when it is appropriate to use the term this way, it is probably best avoided. Certainly it should be avoided in any kind of workplace setting, for instance.

Lastly, there is the kind of very modern political idea that we should try to examine or deconstruct the foundations of the English language itself to understand and better identify sources of sexism, racism, societal bias, and so on. Some people have more radical views on this sort of thing than others, and it remains to be seen how it'll shake out. I've seen people object to the use of the term "baby" as a pet name, for instance, suggesting that it's infantilizing. However, at least as of 2023, the term remains in pretty common use in this way. (And even in some of these more radical circles, I haven't seen anyone suggest that "I'm going to Vegas, yeeeah baby!" would be a sexist use of "baby," as it just seems to have a different interpretation.)

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In the popular culture of the 1960's, "baby" was the equivalent to "bro" and "sista" of today. Possibly adopted from African American culture - I remember Sammy Davis, Jr. calling just about everyone "Baby" - it was also used in advertising: "You've come a long way, baby!" was a famous cigarette ad.

This usage was demonstrated in the original motion picture "The Producers": 'Lorenzo St.Dubois', the hippie portraying Hitler, refers to everyone in his entourage as "baby" - causing 'Franz Liebkin' (the author of the play "Springtime for Hitler") to moan, "Baby?! Who is zis 'Baby'?! Ze Fuhrer has never said,'Baby'!"

More recently, in the Austin Powers movies, "Baby" was ubiquitous, but mostly (exclusively?) directed at females. Perhaps this is where the "sexist" confusion originated?

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    This usage extended into the 1970s as well. The TV detective Kojak called everyone "baby." This is the correct answer for the examples provided in the OP.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 17:14
  • @barbecue - Oops... Forgot about the lollipop man.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 21:24
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    @Ianw No, not sexist, because in the context of that time, it was applied to everyone regardless of gender. The marketing of the product may have been sexist but the word itself was not.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 21:26
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    "You've come a long way, baby!" use in a cigarette ad was for "Virginia Slims, a brand marketed exclusively to women. While intended as a women's empowerment marketing slogan, definitely sexist.
    – Ian W
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 21:31
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    @ianw You're ignoring the context of the 1970s and applying your context of today. That's why you are confused by this. Context in this case means the slang usage popular in the time period. Baby as used in that time and in that style was common slang usage with no implications of weakness or infantility. The fact that the same word can have other meanings in other contexts is a feature of English, but applying the wrong meaning for a context is an error.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 14:25
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I am not sure whether you have checked a dictionary. The Cambridge English Dictionary, for an example, makes clear that the amatory usage of 'baby' is gender neutral. One of its definitions is as follows.

a word you can use when you are talking to someone you love such as your wife, husband, partner, etc.:

It is a common fact about the development of a lasting intimate relationship that at some point they get into the habit of using with each other the sorts of endearments adoring parents use to babies and toddlers. This is not surprising, considering that the love we express to small children is the very essence of completely unconditional love.

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    Not certain that the usage OP is referring to is the "amatory" usage you speak of.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 2:59
  • Now, if baby is something you say to someone you love, then what happens if a man says baby to woman with whom he has no romantic relations whatsoever? Could that be offensive? Of course, at least formally, in some way the offense would be the same if a woman said that to a nonpartner man. Maybe it depends on culture or subculture. Maybe in some "cultures", people say baby to each other without any romantic (or sexual) connotations? Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 17:07
  • @JeppeStigNielsen In the usage described in this answer, someone calling someone else "baby" would usually be inappropriate. Offensive if there's a power imbalance. At least in the States, I don't know of any subcultures that use "baby" casually. Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 20:12
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    But a man saying "You know it, baby!" to a woman who asked them "Are you excited for Vegas?" would not be offensive. Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 20:14
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I think that there is not much doubt that "baby" here is the general idea of someone who is much loved and requires the kind attention of another.

The OED gives

6. colloquial. a. A lover; (also) a spouse. As a term of endearment: darling, sweetheart.

In early use only applied to women.

After the isolated example in quot. 1684, the modern use of this sense originates in the United States.

1684 A. Behn Love-lett. between Noble-man & Sister 328 *Philander, who is not able to support the thought that any thing should afflict his lovely Baby, takes care from hour to hour to satisfie her tender doubting heart.

1862 H. M. Naglee Let. 8 Jan. in Love Life Brig. Gen. H. M. Naglee (1867) 119 Dear, dear, dear Baby, how often, how incessantly I think of you.

As far as whether it is sexist or not, both men and women use it of each other and babies come in both sexes... The answer is in the context, not the word.

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    You seem to be ignoring the contemporary usages of the word that has virtually nothing to do with amorous feelings.
    – Corey
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 10:22
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"Baby" is a term commonly associated with men who objectify women via cat calling and in other ways. For example:

Hey, baby. You [sic] looking fine.

This is, for example, parodied in asdfmovie 11 (transcript, clip) and the "Cat Calling" Cyanide & Happiness short.

However, phrases like "You know it, baby" or "I'm going to Vegas, baby", among others, don't carry that same meaning. In those examples specifically, "baby" would just be a gender-neutral term of address.

As a different answer noted, there may still be a connotation to Austin Powers, who some consider to be quite sexist and who extensively used "baby", often in a way that arguably objectifies women (but of course others may disagree).

Some care mostly about the intent of the speaker, while others may feel that the negative connotation of "baby" means that it should be avoided more generally. This would be somewhat in line with the recent shift away from other terms with negative connotations or histories like "master/slave", "blacklist", etc., although I haven't really heard people object to "baby" more generally.

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