There's a chap in our local shop who insists, each time I enter or leave his shop, on calling me "Darl". I assume it's short for "darling" and that he doesn't think my name is really Darlene. Either way, it's driving me mad. Because, potential weirdos aside, I'm not shy of revealing my name to people. And I go into his shop often enough. It's not like we're complete strangers. He could just ask my name. Or just not use a 'name' at all. I wish he would do either. Because, I cannot tell you how irritating it is to be constantly referred to in this way. 

I don't think that's unreasonable. It's not like I object wholesale to non-acquaintances addressing me at all, it's just that 'darling' or 'sweetheart' or, perhaps most horrible of all, 'princess', is not the way any woman over the age of eight really relishes being addressed . Well, none of the women that I know do.  And there's often an inequality in how men and women are addressed. Many times I've heard a bus driver, or a gate attendant greet a chap as 'Sir', only to address his female companion as 'Love'.

And that word, as you'll know if you've ever been called it, is one of the worst. It has a way of sounding at once over-familiar and patronising, belittling and sarcastic, whether it's meant to or not. So few people can carry it off, so why don't they stay away from it? Well, probably because the main offenders are fellas. And fellas rarely have anyone use it on them. It's not their fault, unless we've told them, how would they know we hate it so much?

It strikes me that what we need are more unisex terms. Because male terms like 'mate' and 'pal' are all about acknowledging equality, while the aforementioned 'darling' and 'sweetheart' are quite the opposite. Something that is equally applied to men and women, therefore, is not going to sound (as) patronising. Those terms do exist, but they're sparse. Yes, there are group terms like 'folks' or the more teeth-grindingly grating 'guys'. But singular versions are rare. However, in my home county, Derbyshire, the local, universal term of respect, affection and friendship is 'Duck'. And as unlikely as it sounds, I don't know anyone in Derbyshire who objects to it. You hear it everywhere. From shops to buses and pubs to markets. Between loved ones and near strangers. It's utterly universal. Granted it's more 'of the people' than the peerage, but anyone of just about any age might use it to address just about anyone else. Man to woman, woman to man, woman to woman and even man to man. It even applies to children. But it does take some getting used to for those who've never encountered it before.

And regional variation is very important. If someone manning the turnstiles at Pride Park referred to me as 'Babe' as I passed through, I'd be astounded, and rather put out. But if that's a bloke on the gate at Upton Park in West Ham, then I can appreciate the sort of 'EastEnders' charm of it. 

But it's certainly a minefield, because sometimes when people are trying to be formal, the effect can be even more insulting. That word 'Madam'. On the surface, respectable, polite and deferential. But used too frequently in the course of one exchange, or in slightly the wrong tone and it can come across about as insulting as can be. There's a very fine line between acknowledging that a woman's a lady, and her inferring that you think she's a bit of a madam! One that's probably best avoided unless you're very certain where that line lies.

But it's all about context. When I was a teenager we lived a few doors down from a group of Mormons. All handsome, well-groomed young men with slightly clipped American accents. And when they called me 'ma'am' as I walked past? Well, let's just say, I could live with that …