by Christina Greer*
Like many students, I have supported myself through university by working in various hospitality jobs. We learn pretty quickly how to adapt our behaviour and language to different situations on the job. We talk to our co-workers in one way, our manager in another, and there are many ways in which we can address customers, depending on such things as their sex and age, the formality of the venue, and whether they are in a group or alone. Our intention is to be polite and to avoid giving offence. Wait staff are constantly, though not necessarily consciously, adjusting their language in the work place to suit the customer.
But wait staff don’t always get it right. One who didn’t was a twenty-year-old woman who served my mother in a restaurant. The young woman repeatedly addressed her as darl throughout their exchange, which my mother felt was inappropriate and patronising, given their age difference. Darl (sometimes darls) is term of endearment, chiefly Australian, dating from the 1930s: “ ‘Oh, darl, don’t you bother’, he begged. ‘I hate you to get all het-up.’ ” (K.S. Prichard, Haxby’s Circus, 1930) It is a colloquial abbreviation of darling, and is used to address someone you know very well, such as a spouse, an intimate, or a family member. It is also sometimes used as a more general term of address to strangers, in much the same way as love or dear are used. For instance, you may sometimes hear an older person in a shop or a bar address a customer this way: What can I get for you, love/dear/darl? However, the young woman who addressed my mother as darl had misread her customer, and what was probably intended as a friendly way to put a customer at ease had the opposite effect. My professional advice to inexperienced wait staff is to stick to more formal terms of address in such situations. Just to be safe.
I have come across another Australian word recently in the hospitality trade. It is the word mate, which is being used in an interesting way in the compound term old mate. As an example, when a restaurant customer drops his fork on the floor, my manager will say to me: ‘Can you get old mate on table twelve a new fork?’ Another staff member will point someone out to me, saying: ‘Check out old mate standing by the bar’.
The word mate in Australian English most commonly means ‘a close friend’, or ‘an acquaintance or fellow-worker’. You will often hear old mate in a context like we’re old mates from high school, but that’s not the way I hear it used on the job. Old mate in this context does not imply that the person is old, or that the speaker has an existing relationship with them. It is not usually used in front of the person being spoken about, although it can be; sometimes I have heard staff refer this way to someone who is in close proximity to them: ‘I have been helping old mate here.’
Current dictionaries do not include this sense, although some evidence for it can be found online. The site Urban Dictionary defines old mate as ‘a replacement term for a person’s name within a sentence’. There are other terms in English that replace the name of a person you do not know, or whose name you have forgotten: whatsisname and whatsername, for example. But old mate is a little different. In the examples above it does not necessarily replace a name, but rather one of these terms: the person, that person, or this person.
Although there is not a great deal of evidence for this term yet, the online evidence suggests that this usage of old mate may be Australian. If anyone is familiar with it, please leave a comment.
*Christina Greer is a research assistant at ANDC.