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The 'hon' kerfuffle

Denise Whiting, proprietress of Cafe Hon in Hampden, has turned into a polarizing figure, as will become apparent to anyone who reads the comments on today’s Baltimore Sun article on her trademarks on the word hon.

But first, some background for our outlying audience. Many in Our Fair City operate under the assumption that hon as an amiable form of casual address is distinctively Baltimorean. It is not. As evidenced by widespread waitress-speak—“What’ll you have, hon?”—it is broadly American. My wife, who grew up in Ohio, was calling me “Hon” in the 1980s.

But Baltimore, thanks to the films in which John Waters has celebrated the city’s working-class culture and oddities, has clasped hon to its bosom. Ms. Whiting, a shrewd entrepreneur, opened up Cafe Hon in Hampden, a signature white, working-class neighborhood, and has ridden the stereotype hard. She has established the annual Honfest, in which beehive hairdos, housecoats, and approximations of the local accent are widely displayed.

If you read the comments on the article—a very few will serve—you will see abuse heaped on Ms. Whiting for perpetuating a white trash stereotype, cheapening the city’s image, exploiting the local characteristics that John Waters celebrated for crass financial gain, and serving bad food. (There’s also probably some spillover animus for her support of the building of a Wal-Mart in neighboring Remington. We won’t touch that one today.)

But if you were to go to a parallel post on dining@large, where Richard Gorelick has made an effort to foster reasonableness and civility in the comments, you will discover—it takes one’s breath away—reasonableness and civility.

Ms. Whiting, some commenters there point out, is not out to charge a royalty every time someone utters the word hon. She is, as other holders of trademarks do, trying to protect a brand. She does not want someone else to sell “hon” merchandise like hers or set up a rival Honfest. The question, really, is how far one can go to trademark a word in the vernacular.

But that question is a legal one, and no one apart from lawyers and linguists is apt to find it to be stimulating. What leads to the raised voices is the question of ownership of language. And with that question come all the overtones of social class, local history and culture, and personal likes and dislikes that crowd in on discussions of language and ensure that such discussions will never be neutral or unemotional.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:10 AM | | Comments (10)


I'm surprised the Patent and Trademark Office approved a trademark on a common slang term. I could see a trademark on the restaurant name, to keep another Cafe Hon from opening up. Using this as precedent, what's to stop someone from applying for a trademark for "y'all" or "yinz" or some other regional slang?

If I was not called "hon" by one of the "sweeties" at the DK Diner in West Chester, Pa., I would think I forgot to leave a tip the last time I was in for breakfast.

As someone pointed out at the other posting, trademarks are always specific to a given commercial category. That's why Apple Records and Apple Computers shared the "Apple" trademark for years -- until Apple Computers started selling music on iTunes, and things got sticky, but I believe they are now a-buddies again.

The woman is obviously overreaching, but that's what monopolists do.

I don't get the "white trash" stereotype here. To me, the "What’ll you have, hon?" waitresses you mention are hard working people with sensible heads on their shoulders who treat everyone well unless they show they deserve otherwise.

As a followup to my earlier comment, a search of the Patent and Trademark Office's trademark search engine ( found 58 trademarks that incorporate "y'all," although none for just that word. And "yinz" has two entries.

The difference between the universal waitress "hon" and the Baltimore "hon" is that the Batlimore "hon" is used EVERYWHERE by EVERYONE.

Part of my job is in a factory environment. I see big tough Teamster guys calling each other Hon without irony or embarrassment or comic intent.

The Cajun "cher" might be an equivalent; I don't know enough to say.

I am a 49 yr resident of Baltimore.

Born on the East side, actually on McElderry, near Hopkins.

My only city of residence has been Baltimore. I knew the Harbor when it was stinky port, when watermelons could be bought off a boat, when Connolly's was THE crab place to go, when you could smell the hops and the vanilla and/or pepper in the air.

I think every decent ORIGINAL Hon should take action against Denise Whiting from infringing and making profit of what they saw as "just the way they growed up".

This entire scenario gives me a bad taste in my mouth. With that being said, you will not see me in Cafe Hon, and I will encourage all of my friends--both in-state, out-of-state, and international--to read about about this action to own "Hon". I am confident they will be disgusted as well.

I'll try and boil it down. We aren't jealous we didn't think of it first, we are simply appalled that ANYONE would. Regardless of my personal tastes, props to her for marketing a brand, creating an enterprise, and a successful festival. But claiming to own a regional word she did not originate, threatening to sue the pants off anyone who uses it, hoping to charge the city and nonprofits to use it or bargain for a parking garage, claiming she basically put Hampden on the map, well, its all nuts. She should have the right to trademark "Cafe Hon" and "Honfest" and that's it. You want to let her trademark the iconic image of the oval hon sticker, well I could maybe see that too, if she can prove she came up with that one first. But the word "hon" or an image of a beehive and glasses are common use, and to claim them for her own and attempt to prohibit other local entrepreneurs from using them is arrogant and unfair, and I feel simply not a legal use of trademark law. They should be returned to common use. She is overreaching. It's not hers, and yes as you point out, not even a 'Baltimore' thing, it is wider than that.

I'll tell you what, if this stands, then I am going to patent 'cake' and you can all pay me on your birthday or eat pie.

Except that she DIDN"T create the sticker logo, she STOLE IT from all the other similar place name abbreviation, white and black oval bumper stickers you see from all over, maybe they should SUE HER! ( I'll bet she would just claim its fair use...)

You cannot trademark the oval - the trademark folks said so - you could only trademark the word inside, which is what she did, NINE YEARS AGO! She has not ever taken money from anyone for using it, and did not charge a "non-profit" - the caterer doing the event donated $25 to her non-profit - she has the check to prove it. And she never threatened anyone. Artists who make Hon merchandise do it without paying a fee and then she buys it to sell. Please check your facts.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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