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Americans Need a 'Mate' of Their Own


This week Australia's ban on `mate-ing' lasted just a day. On Thursday, the guards at Australia's parliament house were instructed not to call politicians or visitors mate. Telling an Australian not to say `mate' is like telling them to be mute. `Mate' is not just word in Australian English; it summarizes a whole democratic attitude. It assumes friendliness without presuming familiarity. It signifies that the two people exchanging greetings are equals, without pretending that they truly know each other. It's what the term `comrade' was supposed to be without any connotations of gulags and re-education camps.

The bipartisan reaction to the banning of `mate' was instantaneous and outraged. Prime Minister John Howard called it absurd. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawk defended `mate' by saying it's got a nice neutrality. It doesn't imply any intimacy. It shows a level of respect. I think it's one of our great words.' The ban was rescinded yesterday.

I think we need a `mate' in American English. First names in this country are being abused by people who deploy them as part of a commercial strategy. `Hi, Scott. This is Dave. I'm calling to tell you about Verizon's great new after-hours calling plan.' Now you can't really get angry at Dave for dragging you dripping wet from the shower to sell you something. Dave is your friend, Scott. You can't get upset at all the Daves at airlines, computer help lines or credit card companies. They're not professionals from whom you have a right to expect certain standards of competence and courtesy. No, their friends. We make allowances for friends. What you call people counts.

Newsday reported this week that one of the reasons Cindy Sheehan was upset over her meeting with President Bush in June of 2004 is that she says the president did not refer to her by name, but called her `Mom.' Now we get kidded on this program for using courtesy titles like Mr. or Mrs. We hope to put people at ease by addressing them with respect. It can sound a little fussy and sometimes disingenuous; after all, most of the people that we interview or even strangers I encounter on the street or in airports call me by my first name and I like that. The people who know me from being broadcast into their homes at least know me, in a way. Mass marketers only want to know my credit card. So we need an American equivalent of `mate.'

There are regional and community favorites like pal, chief, amigo, brother or haus(ph). But Americans need something that works from coast to coast, community to community. Something you wouldn't be embarrassed to call your mother-in-law, a traffic cop or Laura Bush. What would you suggest, Dave?

(Soundbite of "Where's the Mate for Me?")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...makes me go where the rivers flow. I drift along with my fancy. Sometimes I thank my lucky stars my heart is free, and other times I wonder where's the mate for me.

SIMON: Bonnie's dad at 18 minute past the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.