The 'hon' kerfuffle

Denise Whiting, proprietress of Cafe Hon in Hampden, has turned into a polarizing figure, as will become apparent to anyone who reads the comments on today’s Baltimore Sun article on her trademarks on the word hon.

But first, some background for our outlying audience. Many in Our Fair City operate under the assumption that hon as an amiable form of casual address is distinctively Baltimorean. It is not. As evidenced by widespread waitress-speak—“What’ll you have, hon?”—it is broadly American. My wife, who grew up in Ohio, was calling me “Hon” in the 1980s.

But Baltimore, thanks to the films in which John Waters has celebrated the city’s working-class culture and oddities, has clasped hon to its bosom. Ms. Whiting, a shrewd entrepreneur, opened up Cafe Hon in Hampden, a signature white, working-class neighborhood, and has ridden the stereotype hard. She has established the annual Honfest, in which beehive hairdos, housecoats, and approximations of the local accent are widely displayed.

If you read the comments on the article—a very few will serve—you will see abuse heaped on Ms. Whiting for perpetuating a white trash stereotype, cheapening the city’s image, exploiting the local characteristics that John Waters celebrated for crass financial gain, and serving bad food. (There’s also probably some spillover animus for her support of the building of a Wal-Mart in neighboring Remington. We won’t touch that one today.)

But if you were to go to a parallel post on dining@large, where Richard Gorelick has made an effort to foster reasonableness and civility in the comments, you will discover—it takes one’s breath away—reasonableness and civility.

Ms. Whiting, some commenters there point out, is not out to charge a royalty every time someone utters the word hon. She is, as other holders of trademarks do, trying to protect a brand. She does not want someone else to sell “hon” merchandise like hers or set up a rival Honfest. The question, really, is how far one can go to trademark a word in the vernacular.

But that question is a legal one, and no one apart from lawyers and linguists is apt to find it to be stimulating. What leads to the raised voices is the question of ownership of language. And with that question come all the overtones of social class, local history and culture, and personal likes and dislikes that crowd in on discussions of language and ensure that such discussions will never be neutral or unemotional.



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