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Elders and teachers sometimes address a child as 'dear' when they can recall his/her name. Image Credit:

Do you remember how you loved those teachers and some of the older people you encountered who always added a “dear” when they spoke to you? You felt they were affectionate, they cared about you and you were well regarded by them.

It is only when you moved into middle age and gradually realised that you were losing track of the names of the people you interacted with, that you went back in time and wondered whether those teachers and older people decided that instead of fumbling for the right name it was a lot easier to say, “How are you, my girl?” or “Did you join the course you wanted, dear?”

Because now you are doing it, pretty much as a habit, and you do it not merely with the ones whom you encounter rarely but also with those who step in and out of your life regularly — and you would like to think that no one suspects your use of terms of endearment is actually an attempt to mask your growing forgetfulness.

Their names are on the tip of your tongue, but instead of fumbling or blurting out the wrong name, you decide the situation is best served by using an all-purpose “dear” or a little more affectionate “sweetie”, depending on how close you are to the person concerned.

At home when we were growing up, we were accustomed to an absent-minded father who rarely got our names right when he called us to help him. He would call out our names in order of our birth, but not so quickly that it could be taken that he wanted all three of us to drop everything and rush to his side. He went in slow motion, with an “Um” in between each name and we knew that he wanted just one of us there but he had forgotten which one was the need of the moment.

So, we ignored his call. When chastised, we came up with the instant explanation that we did not know whom he wanted — and we mostly got away with that brand of insubordination.

Taking offence

Later, when both my older siblings were out of the house and I was the only one at home, father persisted in this habit and once again, there was no response to his call. He would look offended that I had not reacted, especially when he saw me hanging around doing very little else; but shamelessly, I would put on an equally offended look and remind him that not only should he decide which one of us he really wanted but he had better remember the name of the only one that was around at the time!

Perhaps if he had resorted to a simple, “Come here, my angel,” or “I need you here, my precious,” he would have had an instant response and both he and I would have felt good about ourselves.

The same principle, however, may not work that well if you have a single child — and thereafter a single son-in-law/daughter-in-law.

You had better get their names right at the first shot or you could be in for a series of tests for dementia, Alzheimer’s and whatever else they suspect from your fuzzy-mindedness, plus you could cause offence and have them hesitant to answer because they are unsure which one of them is the angel/the precious one ...

Then again, with the use of terms of endearment, perhaps it is best to avoid that all-encompassing ‘beta’ (which we Indians tend to use for everyone around a decade younger than we are), and come up with something closer to the mark to get the action — or reaction — we seek!

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.