Jonathon Green: Terms of endearment: why the PM was neither right nor honourable

'Dear' is the least of it. There are plenty of ways of giving offence by mistake

It could have been much worse. It could have been the F-word. It could have been "sweetie" or "honey" or "sugar" or any of those words that men use to fete women who are "good enough to eat". It could have been "darling", but even our egalitarian PM presumably eschews a term usually shouted from white vans. He could have sidestepped it entirely with the demotic "come off it" or even "steady the Buffs", but he didn't. David Cameron, under pressure at Prime Minister's Questions, requested that Angela Eagle, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, "Calm down, dear". He stands accused of being sexist and patronising. "I've been condescended to by better people," says Ms Eagle, but frustratingly offers neither chapter nor verse. The Prime Minister passes the buck to Michael Winner. Few are convinced.

Political exchanges resemble sport, in that one needs to believe in the need to win but at the same time to appreciate the innate absurdity of what is a game. In both, errors are punished. Whether the "calm down" or the "dear" has been ranked the more insulting is debatable. The former takes one back to Harry Enfield's three febrile scousers, one hopelessly employing the phrase to defuse the others' ever-seething aggression. Perhaps a younger Mr Cameron absorbed it. Or perhaps, addressing it to Ms Eagle, he was suggesting a certain insincerity in her attack for which, done well, the word is oratory, but done as is usual, is merely hyperbole for its own sake.

There is no way out of "dear". It suggests condescension at best and arrogance beyond that; also imbalances in age and of authority. Carer to geriatric, nanny to nursling, granny to grandchild. Yet a friend, a very Nob of Nobshire, has called her friends "m'dear" for 40 years and her delivery contains none of those inferences. It's also a staple of Mummerset: Kipling's Stalky used it, along with "z" for "s" when flirting with a north Devon milkmaid. It should be prefaced "moy" and pronounced with a burred double-"r". "Dearie" conjures up old queens and ageing whores. But these are modified forms and the sting has been drawn. Extended as "dear boy" it summons a lost world of boozy lunches in and out of an equally vanished clubland.

This brings us, of course, to class: this is Britain – how not? We do not know what Mr Cameron calls his wife when alone, but we can stereotype. Like their tastes in food, forever immured in the stodgy pleasures of prep school afters, the nobs remain infantilised. Pet names, often sourced from a childhood inability to pronounce one's own, continue through life consciously restrictive, a linguistically gated community. We are doubtless fortunate that Mr Cameron and Ms Eagle were not at school together.

So what do we call each other? Especially when "we" are male and "the other" is female. Would any of it pass frontbench muster? As elsewhere in our supple, subtle language, much depends on context. It may be only what you say, but it's always how you say it, not to mention where and when. There have been some paradoxical changes regarding what is usually forbidden: "nigger" has been "reclaimed" by blacks, "queer" by homosexuals, but they remain taboo on white or heterosexual lips.

The currency of intimate address has changed. The days when a valet might be called by his given name but a friend only by his surname are gone. Like the "continentals", British, or certainly metropolitan heterosexual men, now kiss, albeit on the cheek, on greeting. Emails between male friends are signed "love", possibly with an oscular "x". No one is anyone's "humble servant".

For men at least, intimacy also comes according to gender. Man to man, man to woman. The first, as one might expect, is manly. Butch, even. There is "man" itself. One finds it in the 16th century but the modern use, like much slang, starts in black America and some suggest was a conscious response to the white insult of "boy". Often it extends to "my man" or "my main man". "Woman", on the other hand, conjures up the world of Mills & Boon, all jut-jawed heroes clasping wilting ingénues.

There is "dude", coined to describe a fop but long since working as a neutral salutation, at least in young America. Many terms are formed from coupling "old" to a word that would otherwise be an insult: "bugger", "bastard" or "sod". One can go further and adopt the canonical obscenities and so doing render them affectionate. "Old" is wide ranging. "Old man", "old boy", "old fellow", "old girl". "Old cockalorum" served for men around 1900, as did "old chip", while "old flower" is Irish and "old chook", ie chicken, Australian. But again, that context. The "man", "boy" and "fellow" reek of ripping yarns; the "girl" of "anyone for tennis".

"Baby" is hermaphrodite. It swings both ways and between men was seemingly another black coinage, a form of inverted macho that used a term screaming vulnerability to say "Look at me, I've got manhood to spare". But baby, as witnessed in so many pop lyrics, tends to refer to women. Next stop, baby-talk. As Frank Dumont's joke book of 1898 winced: "She calls you 'baby' and you call her 'ootsy'." Not to mention snookums, ookums and similar nursery creations. And baby also gives "babe", which is not always friendly.

But let us not be ingénues, either. Cameron's "dear", with its sniff of de haut en bas, aimed foursquare at the "little woman". And as such links to other forms of diminution. Man-to-woman endearments have twin themes: the metaphorically edible and what Germaine Greer termed "the pretty toy words". Neither offer what one might consider "parliamentary language".

The first group is not on the whole for the diabetic. Not only is she "good enough to eat" but she is also irredeemably sweet. Indeed, "sweet" along with "sweetie", "sweetie-pie", "sweetpea" and "sweetheart" are high on the list. And there is "honey". Along with "honey-bun", "honey-bunch", "honeybunny" and more. As for theme two, there's "darl" and "darling", "doll" (term of choice for Rab C Nesbitt), "dolly", "dollface" and "doll-baby"; "angel", and so on. "Dreamboat" is another gender-bender and if anything aims at men. "Poppet" comes from the Latin pupa, a doll; it developed as "popsie". In comparison, "dear", except that it patently wasn't, starts to look positively anodyne.

Glutinous, infantilising stuff, but at least these are supposed to be affectionate. Unlike, say, "bitch". Except that it is. Or according to many rappers, defending themselves against misogyny, it can be.

So is there anything one might use without offence? There are generics – "John", "guvnor", "squire" – but they're male only. How about "chuck", which comes from chicken and like "pet" seems to work offencelessly in the North, or "ducks", hardwired into Cockney conversation? Terms that are, in essence, verbal punctuation, meaningless hiccups like "y'know" and "innit". Or even "love", which no more refers to actual emotion than chuck and ducks refer to poultry. Or, for man to woman, the plain and simple: "lady", or "girl". But the first smacks of music-hall's blue comedian Max Miller, while "girl", once camp and gay, is now female only.

We are on a loser here. They don't work. Not a single one of them. Nothing escapes from class, gender or geography. And, of course, context. To intimates one can be intimate, to others not. In particular, within Parliament's elaborate constraints, Ms Eagle has an official title. Isn't there some naming convention? "My Honourable this", or "My Right Honourable that"?

We may laugh at Parliament's obfuscations, all a bit pompous and something of a mouthful, but unlike "dear", let alone "calm down", it would have left no bitter taste.

Jonathon Green is the author of 'Green's Dictionary of Slang'