Terms of engenderment, or The “buddy” question


As seen on the tot lot playground.

The other day, at our neighborhood tot lot, a dad was pushing his toddlerish child in the swing next to me and the lil’ monkey, who, per usual, was heading into her second hour in the saddle, showing no signs of fatigue, though her lower extremities must surely have been tingly-numb by then. I know my arm was. She was singing DaDa-ist songs to herself, as she is often wont to do, and my mind (and ears) had occasion to wander to the neighboring swingers. In the (relatively) short time he was next to us, I heard the dad use on his kid the diminutive “buddy” as well as its slightly less frequently employed cognates “pal,” and “my friend.” Now I ask you, to which biological sex of kidling, based on your own experience of the usage of these terms of endearment, do you think these diminutives were directed?

Wait, I’ll answer for you: a boy.

Boy kids are buddies. Girl kids are — well, in my own anecdotal experience, they have been lots of things, but rarely buddies. Oh, don’t even try to offer up as an example Kristy McNichol’s character Buddy in the 1970s TV series “Family.” It only goes to prove the boy-association of the term. Everyone who was a then-tomboy and future-lesbo watching that show back then knows just what I’m saying. Even the rest of y’all know what I’m saying.

I think we can take my anecdotal experience as pretty much on the mark, and then go on to try to puzzle out what that means that we tell boys they’re our “buddies,” and ask what role that selective form of address plays in boys’ socialization as little bouncey rubber toughies. In what I’m sure will be a life-long quest to ensure both our kids have maximum elbow room to become whomever they wish to become, I am compelled to not let these differentiations drift by unexamined, as if they were inevitable, or harmless, or even in objective service to absolute biological truth. Some may well be, and I’ll learn tough lessons about the power of nature over nurture, I’m certain. But the language we use in addressing the wee mites falls in the realm of nurture. So these are hairs I gotta split.

Now as it happens, I’ve returned to work outside the house this week (ha HA! just in time for the sleep deprivation to begin to manifest in hallucinations! “What’s that behind the copier?!! Duck everyone! Duck and cover!! Oh, no. Never mind. Don’t even listen to me. Go on with what you were saying.”). But so where ordinarily I’d be able to humor my desire to obsessively research the larger topic of gender socialization as it plays out in terms of address for girls and boys in early childhood, and maybe season this post with some Learned Wisdom, now I plain can’t squeeze in the time. Circumstances call for me to become a far more efficient quick sketch artist these days, and I’m sure it’s just as well. (Redundant repetitiveness begone! Indulgent loquatiousness, meet the bullet point!) I can note, though, that feminist linguists (and one must say they are cunning) have already made the case for how normative gender-training positively drips off of language, from the very first application of it upon fresh human beings, and all the way down to the smallest particle of speech.

We know language matters, period. And an innocuous diminutive like “buddy” brings with it meanings we are associating with our boys, intentionally or not, when we use the term on them (and not on their sisters). After spreading out some of those meanings for us to look at and cogitate on, I’ll just end with a flurry of questions, since that’s all I can do these days on so little sleep (e.g., “Sweetie? Did you feed the garbage and take out the dog? Or did I? And if I did, why did I?”). Here are some connotations “buddy” holds for me:

    • a buddy is a friend, (and therefore an equal, as opposed to a younger, physically and emotionally dependant being whom we are entrusted to protect);
    • a buddy is rough-and-tumble;
    • “buddy” floats around nearby “buddy boy,” which, though I am hard-pressed to find an etymological tract on it all, definitely feels to me to be the linguistic equivalent of a slightly-too-hard sock in the arm: a good natured, but watch yourself kind of address.

A gloss on the denotative meaning of buddy confirms the above, and points out that it is speculated to have originated as a variant on “brother,” and was “long associated with coal miners.”

So here are some of the things I wonder: Do fathers use this term in reference to their sons more than mothers (generally, if not even stereotypically speaking)? If so, what might it be about a father-son bond that (general, if not stereotypical) men feel that inspires them to insert this good-natured wedge between their parental selves and their boy children? Why would any of us do this? Is it the rip-tide of conventional language use that pulls this word out of the mouths of those of us who don’t intend — consciously, at least — to make our boy children into durable equals? Or do we really want them to grow up faster than their sisters, and tougher? And, more importantly, do they?

19 Responses to Terms of engenderment, or The “buddy” question

  1. virgotex March 8, 2007 at #

    Or do we really want them to grow up faster than their sisters, and tougher?

    Tell him to jump higher
    Tell him to run farther
    Make him measure up
    Decades longer than you

    “explain it to me”
    liz phair

  2. Liza March 8, 2007 at #

    Food for thought, my tired and hallucinating friend. (I am glad to see that exhaustion hasn’t hurt your sense of humor. Ah, the feminist linguists. Cunning indeed. And our dear young tv Buddy, Kristie.)

    We call Noah “buddy” all the time. Probably also “buddy boy” although I don’t have a clear recollection. But having no “sweetie” to compare him to, I can only assume our impulse is as gendered as anyones.

    Food for thought.

  3. womanwithkids March 8, 2007 at #

    In my opinion, a lot of dads (not all) tend to be “friends” with their kids. My ex is more of a friend than a dad, per se, and tends to call the boys buddy, pal, etc. They go to his house to hang out and play video games, much like they do at friend’s houses.

    Or they just subconsciously want them to grow up to be coal miners?

  4. Vikki March 8, 2007 at #

    When my son was about two, I remember playing with him in the park when the word “buddy” slipped out. In that very moment, it struck me as odd and I kept wondering where it came from since “buddy” is not part of my usual vocabulary.

    I agree that language is powerful and it is always good to look at the words we use critically. We don’t use “buddy” in our house – we are a “sweetie” household but we use it for our son and our daughter.

    This is an interesting post…

  5. Trista March 8, 2007 at #

    I’m thinking of the old theory that boys are supposed to grow up and be rivals with their fathers for their mother’s affection… And the rivalry was a physical one: the young buck challenging the stud of the herd for dominance. A display of physical prowess the training for which is rough and tumble games. In that case the father is in a peculiar situation. Pride in his son urges toward making certain his son will succeed in such challenges toward other men (and such a thing goes hand in hand with a certain relaxing of the boundaries to some extent so that those in power can be seen as someone susceptible to challenge as a matter of course) while Pride in himself would want to make certain to establish the hierarchy firmly enough to undercut the young buck’s desire (if not ability) to succeed against him.

    Girls would not be called buddy because girls are the fought over, the territory, and outside this dynamic.

    But this is just a guess. I’m not sure where the miners fit in and I could just be talking out of my blowhole.

  6. katieschwartz March 8, 2007 at #

    ooh, interesting topic, ld. one of my faves. I have this conversation with my dad all the time. nature versus nurture, child rearing, etc. my father believes that with respect to nurturing, men and women sit side by side, they just don’t know it. he makes a good point.

    my parents raised us equally, three boys and two girls. we were not allowed to play with guns or simulate war or violence in any way. they were straightforward with us about everything from the time we were children to present day. they really never held back. we were all allowed to cry, play sports, exercise creativity and have all different types of friends.

    in that respect, I think we were very lucky.

    I do think overall, boys and girls are definitely raised differently. that I don’t like. I think it perpetuates those stereotypical male/female issues.

  7. giddings March 9, 2007 at #

    I have also wondered about the term “Buddy.” In fact, some lesbian parent friends of ours refer to their eldest often as “Bud” which always struck me as strange. I guess I’ve always thought of the term as a way to distance yourself, somehow, from the child. It is not a particularly endearing nickname and, as you said, it inserts a somehow platonic tone to the relationship. A friend of mine once pointed out that when people huged her and simulatneously patted her back, she viewed it as a way to make the exchange more platonic. I wonder if it is a way for men (hence my strange reaction to the women calling their son “Bud”) to guarantee a “heterosexual” intimacy with their sons?

    On a side note, I find myself sometimes referring to Big as “Kid”; i.e. “WHOA, KID!” When he is doing something that I perceive as dangerous. I’m sure there are similar heterosexist and gender-normative roots there. Interesting how automatic it seems/feels.

  8. the KIABIL March 9, 2007 at #

    Wow. Everyone went somewhere else than I did. Imagine that. Ya’ll went to hang out at “why do we call our boys ‘buddy’?” I’m standing over here at “Why don’t I call my daughter buddy?”

    I remember a late night insomniacal channel surfing encounter with a right wing ‘pro family’ preacher. He said “our sons don’t need buddies, they need fathers!” and my skin crawled. I sure do want to be friends with my kids, now and in the future. I enjoy being friends with my kids, now almost 5 and 7. They are funny, talk about interesting things, give me neat perspectives on the world and we enjoy doing a lot of things together.

    They’re not my friends in the ‘let me tell you my worries and you help me figure them out’ way. And I’m all about parental responsibility for drawing boundaries and many other duties that don’t fall in the friendship role. Within those parameters, they’re my friends.

    LD, you’re absolutely right that it’s a verbal sock in the arm. I go back to wondering why I don’t call my daughter ‘buddy’. I’ve tried it out a few times. I tossed it at Monkey once. It feels OK. Nothing definitive yet, but I’m thinking I’ll expand rather than contract my usage.

  9. heidib March 10, 2007 at #

    Ooooo, interesting. I am inclined to agree with the KIABIL on this one as we are more likely to use the term more often with our girl rather than less often with our boys. (We have 18 month old GBB triplets.) I am certain that it was simple convention that caused “buddy” to be uttered by us in the first place, but I recall being immediately aware that if we were going to use this term for our boys, then our girl was gonna be a “buddy”, as well. We use other endearments around here(“cutie”, “sweetie”) without concern for gender, so why not?

    I can’t answer many of the questions that you pose, but as for the last one I can tell you for certain that so far our little girl is way ahead (physically, socially, and linguistically) no matter what we do (or don’t) call her.

  10. Isobel March 10, 2007 at #

    I went where the KIABIL went, because I have a girl whom I never refer to as buddy. She’s sweetie, sweetheart, the Cheeks, the Chunk, sweet girl – a lot of emphasis on sweet with a few other odd ones thrown in. She’s going to a new family day care once a week and I’ve noticed that the woman there – VERY cool – refers to both her male and female charges as buddy. I think it’s fantastic and I’ll say it here and now: I am going to make a concerted effort to refer to my daughter as buddy.

    Oh yeah, yesterday I vowed that I’d make a concerted effort to encourage her to play with her train set. I forgot about that one. I think trains are kind of boring and in a lot of ways I’m thankful I’ve escaped (up til now) having to learn the names of every Thomas the Train gizmo, not to mention every kind of construction vehicle imaginable, but on the other hand it’s not like putting diapers on stuffed animals and pushing them around in toy strollers is so thrilling either.

  11. LesbianDad March 10, 2007 at #

    Oh this is all so very fascinating!

    So many very fascinating reflections, each one. I want to riff off of everybody’s comments but am (again) using up most of my energy trying to get a toe-hold here on the steep slope that has been the exponential increase in childcare tasks/stresses/issues w/the addition of kid#2.

    I’m glad that it’s an interesting question to others, and not just a quirky obsession of mine. I still have a lot of 1980s hardcore feminist language police in me, even as I have moderated it a lot and am the very first to use disrespectful anti-feminist lingo, in the right company, and for ironic effect. Only in the right company. But rather than propose an ougright ban, my essential desire is to notice and reflect and invite (from myself and others) mindful use of language, particularly as one of the more powerful of the myriad guides we use to help our kids on their way to themselves.

    I’m intrigued to hear so many of us find ourselves using this term on boy kids without first even premeditating it (I’m sure side-by-side with sweetie, punkin lamb, etc.). It’s definitely the selective use that has singled it out for my cogitation. That, and hearing it come out of me in reference to two of my nephews (each time: once, but each time, it was in a moment of slight irritation, I wince to say). Those of us with both girl kids and boy kids have more opportunity to look at its use in a comparative way, and then also employ it to some kind of interesting effect on the girl kids, should we like. For those of us with sons only, the responses would play out differently. To reverse things and sprinkle in the saccharine diminutives for them is certainly an option, but there’ll always be the considerations around respecting their baseline sense of safety in the public sphere (o, a can of worms!). But I don’t see myself calling out to the little guy, “C’mere, me little buttercup!” when he’s on the elementary school playground. Unless, lord love him, he is a little buttercup.

    Of course me, I identified a lot with both the Kristy McNichol character of Buddy and watched plenty of Gilligan’s Island, whose title character we all know was affectionately called “little buddy” by the Skipper. (I identified with the Professor, perhaps not surprisingly, and spent most of the time shaking the bedazzled out of me whenever Ginger slinked on and off the scene. Hubba hubba.)(But I digress.) I’d-a loved to have been called “buddy” by either of my parents. They certainly tracked my gender dysphoria from a young age (how could they not, when I was Robin Hood for Halloween for like eight years in a row?). And my mom did break down and get me a striped, high-crew-necked Hang Ten T-shirt after I had begged her raw. Just so’s I could hold my own alongside my boy chums who got ’em without even having to beg.

    I don’t know how I’ll evolve on my “buddy” use over time. If I opted for equal use of the term on both kids at least I wouldn’t feel like I was toughening up the XY kid and by contrast softening up (by not toughening up) the XX kid. Maybe as our kids get older the notion of socking them on the arm a bit won’t feel as odd as it does now, when the biggest one’s arm is still little enough for me to encircle with thumb and forefinger.

  12. Dana March 13, 2007 at #

    I’m enjoying this thread a lot. I’ll contribute two observations:

    I’ve never seen a straight mother, and few lesbian ones, use “son” as a form of address when referring to their male offspring, though this seems to be a common habit of fathers–as in “I’m very proud of you, son,” or “Don’t put your Matchbox cars in the toaster, son.” I think this may have the same distancing effect as “buddy,” while simultaneously having possessive overtones.

    On the “do we really want them to grow up faster” question, consider that boys wear the same formal wear as children that they do as adults–suits and ties (though the latter may be clip-ons for the younger set). Girls wear dresses very different from those that grown women do–frilly and doll-like until they graduate as women to provocative and revealing. A little boy in formal wear is told he looks like “a little man,” whereas a girl looks like “a little doll” or “a little princess.” Not that I’d want any little girl to dress provocatively–but I think it’s telling that boys dress like men right from the start, whereas for girls, there’s a clear change.

    Funny, though, how this expectation of earlier maturity from boys seems to get flipped by all the TV shows and movies that are based on the premise of an immature man having to be taught maturity and responsibility by the woman he loves.

    Old feminist fodder, I know, but it still seems to come up. Don’t even get me started on the whole “princess” thing among little girls….

  13. LesbianDad March 14, 2007 at #

    About which (the “princess thing”): Lisa over at Lesbian Fatherhood posted something on Christmas Eve last year which included an extensive clip from the Peggy Ornstein NYT piece on the “princess thing.” The original NYT piece, “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” requires registration to read.

  14. ShirleyMalmborg March 29, 2007 at #

    OK so I just read this now a bunch of days later. I call the Audrey “buddy” all the time, but just because it’s part of the giant list of words I use on both kids. Ellis is buddy, Audrey is buddy. Audrey is peanut monkey, Ellis is peanut monkey. Both are called baby, both are called sweetie, and on and on – it changes every day. Both are called superstar and pumpkin and lovey.

    Miss you guys!

  15. narra June 9, 2007 at #

    men who use the term “buddy” when addressing their sons, nephews, friend’s children who are boys, etc., generally mean something very specific by it: you’re in the club but you’re a member of junior standing. these men usually do not think to offer junior standing membership to girls or women, mostly because it doesn’t occur to them that the girls or women want it (of course, some of us did/do, even if it took/takes us a long time to realize we did/do). some of us end up starting our own clubs and have adopted the term for the same purpose. i think the gender lines will continue to break down so that the term becomes genderless eventually and means different things to different people.

    my future wife called me “buddy” before we began dating. it only sounded strange to me because i was disappointed she wasn’t calling me “babe” or “sweetheart” yet. ha. i think i would be more likely to call my girl baby “buddy” than i would my boy baby (when they arrive on the scene). i’ll have to think about why that is.

  16. LesbianDad June 9, 2007 at #

    Just last night a friend and I were talking about the fatherhoods of the lovey-dovey, gentle straight men friends of ours. She noted that one of her closest friends calls both his kids “buddy” equally — girl child and boy.

    I think it’s interesting what you say: “i think the gender lines will continue to break down so that the term becomes genderless eventually and means different things to different people.” Call me a dreamer, but I think this will happen in lots of different domains, over time (who knows how long). Sex will still matter, but gender will matter less. Or it will be disagregated from sex in the strict way it is now (only men have masculinity; only women have femininity, and it’s a shock or a shame if the lines criss-cross). Differentiation will always exist, which is good. The harsh social consequences for the devalued differentiations (at least in my utopian vision) will diminish. There’s a future I’d love my kids to grow up into!

  17. love.ceej July 19, 2007 at #

    This is Carly of the emailed-to-you ilk, reading archives on one of her lazy days off.

    Most of the time I can stop myself posting in archives, ’cause hey, Ceej (that’s me), ya missed it. This one I just couldn’t pass up. It’s an entry I need to put in my file entitled “Reasons I Am A Lesbian According To The Radical Right.”

    I’ve been “bud” all my life. I believe at one point in my early years it was “buddy,” but it quickly became shortened to “bud” or the even cuter “bucket head.” Anyway, I suppose I was called more “girly” things as well, like “punkin,” “sweetie-pie,” or “sweet-pea,” but the two I remember most are “bud” and “scooter.”

    Around here, though (here being my house), everyone gets called “bud.” My dad calls both me and my mom “bud,” my mom calls both me and my dad “bud,” and on occasion, even the dog gets called “bud.” It does sort of exude a message of equality. The worst thing it’s done in my house is make things very confusing. Imagine, three to four “bud”s in a house at any given time. You’re one of them. You’re bound to answer every time someone yells “BUD!” even if it’s not you they’re yelling at.

    But of course, my androgynous or “masculine” nicknames as a child and even young adult must have contributed to my lesbianism. Along with my parents’ lifestyle, my involvement in the theatre….the list goes on and on.

  18. Sarah April 1, 2009 at #

    Hello! I found your blog a week or 2 ago, and am de-lurking to say this:

    I am one of 2 daughters of straight parents. My sister, younger by 2 years, was pretty routinely called “Buddy” or “Bud” by my dad. He called us equally, “tiger lil”, “pumpkin”, etc. The two of them always had a special bond (one which I don’t begrudge – I had it with my mom, at least until I turned 14!).

    Anyway, now at the age of 30, she learned everything that Dad had to teach her about plumbing, thanks to my parents’ last bathroom remodel. She became his co-plumber and co-thinker, rather than assistant and go-fer. She’s also the one in her lab (she’s a biochemist) most likely to take apart their equipment and try to fix it herself, rather than just calling the repair person.

    I, on the other hand, although I try pretty hard to be independent, call my Dad or my sister whenever I have problems of a technical or mechanical sort. (In other words, if someone walks me through it, I can probably do it, but I’m pretty clueless on my own.)

    I have wondered in the past, and your post on this (2 years ago!) got me thinking: how much of this is nature, and how much is nurture? (Or, which came first, the chicken or the egg?)

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