“Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!” Exploring Hon as a Linguistic and Identity Marker in Baltimore”
by Holly-Catherine Britton and Heidi J. Faust
Click on these audio players to listen to our podcast “‘Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!’ Exploring Hon as a Linguistic and Identity Marker in Baltimore” (46 minutes, 46 seconds; copyright 2011). The podcast was also published as an audio feature in the fall 2012 issue of the journal American Speech.
Assigned the task to create a podcast on the use of the word “hon” as a linguistic and identity marker in Baltimore, the prospects seemed dim. How could we fill a podcast about one little word? We decided to take to the streets of Baltimore neighborhoods to investigate the word “hon.” We brainstormed questions, such as: Who uses the word “hon”? With whom? When? What characteristics are associated with the Hon identity? And how has the trademarking and commercialization of the word “hon” impacted its usage and identity?
An example of the word “Hon” in a Baltimore display. [Photo: C. Mallinson]
Hampden, Canton and Highlandtown surfaced as key Baltimore neighborhoods where “hon” is used. As we drove by the Hatton Senior Center, we pulled over, and the next thing we knew, the director of the center and her staff were telling us “hon” stories, and we met women who had participated in Honfest. As they shared some terms in Balmerese and welcomed us to Balmer, hon, we began to immerse ourselves in the local culture and company of Baltimore hons. In subsequent interviews with members of the center, and two cultural and linguistic experts, as well as with Honfest participants, clerks and staff at Hontown and Café Hon, and Pastor Dubsky of a local Hampden church, a complex story of “hon” and Hon in Baltimore began to unfold.
As you listen to this podcast, you’ll hear that the use of the word “hon” is changing and evolving. Not only used as a back clipping of “honey,” “hon” also marks “Hon” as a specific identity–both a local and branded identity. We even see the “verbing” of the word “hon,” as in “My mother will hon you to death” or “She’s all honned up.” Our conversations with linguist Dr. Michael Adams illuminate these processes as well as the commodification of the word “hon.”
Aspects of the word “hon” as a culture and identity also surfaced, as you will hear. Interviews with Dr. Mary Rizzo, an expert on Hon culture, reveal the cultural identity, attachment and underlying emotions surrounding new and old understandings of the meaning of Hon. Raising questions of authenticity, along with sensitivities around class, we learned that the members of local Baltimore communities have a lot to say about the word “hon”: What we found was complex and exciting, rooted in the history of Baltimore, tense along race, class and generational lines.
An example of the word “Hon” on Fifi at the American Visionary Art Museum’s Annual Kinetic Sculpture Race. [photo: C. Mallinson]
Exploring “hon” and Hon from diverse angles helped us put together the many pieces of this puzzle: for example, why the women in the senior center thought of “hon” more as a word rather than as an identity, whereas others defined it as a leopard skinned feather boa-wearing speaker of Balmerese; how, for or some, the personal connections to “hon” stemmed from memories of their mothers and grandmothers, while for others it was just something that waitresses say. The haves and the have-nots weigh in on “hon” as a local tradition and Hon as a branded identity that has been trademarked and is now controlled for commercial use. These complex scenarios raise the questions of whether or not Honfest is honoring working class women, whether a person can “own” a word or identity, who is authentic and who is not, as well as who is allowed to engage in Hon-centered activities and who is not. Who is an insider and who is an outsider, and how is that perpetuated through the use of the Hon identity?
We appreciated the opportunity to hear the stories of local Baltimoreans and to interact with local community members, and we now understand and appreciate the complex dynamics of “Charm City” better. Our research explores some very human sentiments, emotions, celebrations, and tensions around the word “hon.” Our podcast is a small window into Baltimore and the diverse and complex communities that reside within. We hope we have represented them well.
– Heidi and Holly–
Music used in this podcast: Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com).
You can also watch this short YouTube video to learn more about the Honfest 2010 summer festival in Baltimore, which was mentioned in our podcast.