Of Mates and Men: what the nicknames we give each other mean

Guy friends by badjonni via Flickr
Guy friends by badjonni via Flickr

“You alright, mate?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just don’t call me ‘mate’.”

I don’t know why I don’t like that word. I’ve always felt weird towards it, especially when people stick it on me. I don’t really use it myself. And yet it’s so common and apparently so harmless. Recently the word came up in conversation with a mixed group of friends, and one of the women said she didn’t really like it either. The men defended it.

I don’t mind it when someone uses ‘mate’ with their tongue in their cheek. I have an old friend who is male and we sometimes refer to each other with these stylised ways, calling each other mate or bro or dude over text message. It’s an unwritten agreement that we’re ironic about it. I suspect that Ron thinks these words are a bit naff just as much as I do, but we’ve never said it to each other. We have just used them in text messages for years, and maybe once or twice in real life. I think it’s partly that we’re making a mockery of the blokes who we are not: the jocks and and the hard lads and the cool kids and the real men. By adopting their language sarcastically Ron and I are distinguishing ourselves from them. You might think that’s counterintuitive.

Guys and beer by badjonni via Flickr
Guys and beer by badjonni via Flickr

You might think that we’re aping those men because we want to be like that. And for sure I’ve seen weedy men like Ron and I do that, but they do it earnestly. They do seriously want to be somebody’s mate. But Ron and I are happy not being dudes, happy to mock ourselves for how useless we’d be in the army, happy not being cool in the mainstream sense. We’re hardly fringe, to be honest; we like many mainstream things. I don’t go out of my way to be different; it’s just that there are some things about me that are uncommon. For a start I’m queer and I don’t like football (incidentally Ron is straight and a big footie follower). I also don’t make a big show of saying I’m different—because what does that even mean? Isn’t it totally hilarious when someone says “I’m a bit weird, me”? We’re all different in our ways. We are all snowflakes. I bristle when someone says “I’m unique, all my friends think I’m totally nuts” or something like that. What a loser.

So if Ron and I are being sarcastic when we call each other ‘mate’ in a text message, if we’re subverting the normal use of that word, then we have to think about what the normal use is. If I want to understand how it is possible for me to use it sarcastically then I need to understand the ways that men use it properly.

When I was having a discussion about this the other night with that mixed group of mates (haha), I began to make up a theory on the spot. We were talking specifically about why men especially use the word ‘mate’ and as I spoke I started to think that maybe it’s about love.

Bear with me on this. I honestly don’t know where I’m going.

There are several different uses of the word ‘mate’, and here are three.

  1. A man uses the word to describe his male friends, men he is close to and has known for some time. “I’m going to watch the match with my mates,” he’ll say. Or he might proclaim, “You’re my mate. If he comes back I’ll bash him for you.” I think it is this type of use that Ron and I satirise.
  2. A man uses it to be polite to a stranger. The word ‘mate’ often adds a little extra something. So if a man picks up an item you dropped in a supermarket, you might say, “Cheers mate.” It sounds even kinder than just “Cheers” alone. I’ve heard my dad use the word in this sense and it freaks me out. He doesn’t normally use it in Type 1, above, so to hear him use like this is weird because he makes a distinction between his friends and strangers. That’s not to say that he likes strangers more than friends; rather, he makes an effort to be friendly to strangers.
  3. The word can also lighten a situation that could otherwise be threatening. To stop a man pushing into a queue you might say, “The line starts back there, mate.” The nickname says that you have no hard feelings about the fact that the guy looked like he was going to push in, you’re not attacking him; you’re just informing him in a friendly way. Of course, this use has the potential to be received as sarcastic. The man who is set on pushing into the queue or who believes an injustice has occurred might snap back, “I’m not your mate.”

I find each of these uses really interesting. When you lay them out like that you realise how rich that simple little word is, and all the things it can communicate.

Bert and Ernie by See-ming Lee via Flickr
Bert and Ernie by See-ming Lee via Flickr

I think I want to concentrate on Type 1, the use that men reserve for their friends. It is this use that I was referring to when I spoke to my friends about it and when I suggested that it’s about love. My theory is that calling your friend your ‘mate’ is an acceptable and distinctly male way of showing your love for another man. This is not at all homoerotic (although it can be, anything can be).

Calling your male friend a ‘mate’ is simply saying, “You and I share some of the same views, we look after each other and we feel a kinship with one another.” Obviously no man would ever say this to his friend. He’d have to be drunk or pretending to be sarcastic. But this is how we feel about our friends, no? So my view is: how is that not love? Sharing views, looking out for each other and feeling close—that’s definitely love, as much as a rose is a rose is a rose. And we all know it. When we get drunk what do we say to our mates? “I fucking love you.” So we can say it really, but only when alcohol has dissolved our inhibitions.

The theory might fall down when we think about women’s use of the word. Increasingly women are using the word to describe their male friends and vice versa. Increasingly it is used for a mixed group. And yet. It is still male, no? For sure, words evolve and meaning shifts. But the word ‘mate’ in the UK still has a whiff of aftershave about it, doesn’t it? It’s just inherently blokey—like most of the other synonyms for ‘friend’: pal, bud, bro, dude, blud, man… Can you think of female equivalents of these? Are there any distinctly female-sounding equivalents? I can’t think of many beyond ‘girlfriend’ or ‘the girls’ or maybe ‘sister’. I get the impression that there are more of those blokey friend-words than there are girly ones, or at least that the blokey ones are used more often.

It is an example of how our society is dominated by ideas around men. That is not to say that men are the only powerful ones and they are telling us all what words to use. It is much more subtle than that. ‘Mate’ may eventually come to lose its maleness altogether and may be as neutral as ‘friend’. But at the moment if you split friend-words into gendered columns, even though ‘mate’ is transgressing more and more onto the female side, today it still falls much more easily onto the male side. So no, I don’t think the theory does fall down. Yes, women are using ‘mate’, but it is still a male word. I suspect that you’ll find men using it far more frequently than women.

I love you man by greffy via Flickr
I love you man by greffy via Flickr

Maybe women don’t need nicknames like this as much as men. Many women find it easier to define friendship anyway. Many find it easier than men to tell their friends that they support them, that they share something special. Many women don’t need a euphemism or shorthand for this. They can just say it. Many men can do the same, of course. I’d like to think I could say it to Ron. Of course, as with most deep relationships, I like to think that this sort of love and gratitude goes without saying. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded (it is why we have such things as Mother’s Day). Ron, if you’re reading this, I fucking love you mate.

So I believe that wrapped up in that little word ‘mate’ is all the platonic love than one man feels for another. It is the love that says, “Of course you can sleep on my sofa when your girlfriend kicks you out.” It is the love that says, “I’ll take your side.” It is the love that says, “You understand what I want in life.”

And yet. When I said to my mixed group of friends that the word ‘mate’ is about love, the two guys in the group flinched. They said “Nooo!”. They kicked back before I’d even explained my theory. Was there something toxic in putting the words ‘men’ and ‘love’ together when talking about friendship and a word so seemingly simple and light-hearted as ‘mate’? One male friend said he uses it for strangers too, as in Type 2 or 3, and he doesn’t love them. So it can’t be about love, he said. I think he’s wrong. A word can mean different things in different scenarios and to different people. That’s why I divided up the definition above in different types. But isn’t it interesting that the guys reacted so strongly? One of them immediately sought to disprove my suggestion, pulling up a very quick and simple piece of evidence.

And in any case, actually it’s still about love in Types 2 and 3. Let me explain. I have a pretty broad definition of love. It’s pretty much a religious definition. You know: love is everywhere, all you need is love, make love not war. Think about what is happening in Type 2. A stranger is using a word that means ‘friend’ to refer to another stranger. They know nothing about each other. They may not share the same views or traits. But they are sharing a moment. I suggest that using ‘mate’ is a way of referring to a basic human need for companionship.

These moments are all fleeting. You say “Cheers mate” to the guy who hands you back something you dropped or to the man who gave you directions at the petrol station. You say “You’re next mate” to the guy at the bar or “See you mate” to the bloke you chatted to on the train for a few minutes. You might not see these men again, but still you call them ‘mate’. I believe you’re saying there’s something warm about this moment. It is just one human who is being kind to another human, even if just by communicating that deep down we’re all just people and we could all get along if we’re kind.

This leads me to Type 3, which is when using the word ‘mate’ can defuse a potentially lethal situation. You say ‘mate’ in Type 3 to be kind, to lighten a situation. “Calm down, mate, we’re just having a laugh.”

Saying ‘mate’ in Types 2 and 3 is second nature. It’s slight and subtle. Like most words we don’t have to think about it before we use it. That’s how helpful language is: once we know how to talk and once we have enough words we can just interact with the world through speech without thinking much about every single word. That’s what’s happening in Type 2 when my Dad uses it. He doesn’t use it in Type 1 but he’ll use it to refer to a stranger. “Cheers mate, that’s great,” he’ll say to the plumber who’s just fixed his boiler. There’s humanity to a statement when you include the word ‘mate’; without that word it is sterile.

I guess the fact that we don’t usually have to think about why we use most words or about what they each contain is why writing this mini essay even feels a bit odd. We don’t normally think about these things but I’m going to the trouble of thinking about ‘mate’ and writing it all down. It’s because there was something in the clash of instincts in that discussion I had with my friends that made me do it. I instinctively felt it was about love, and the two other men instinctively didn’t like that idea. Whenever I have a situation like that I have to go away and think about it. In this case I’ve outlined in more detail what I think about the word ‘mate’. You can decide whether I’m spewing nonsense.

Oh, but I haven’t said why I don’t like the word. That’s where I started this little trip. My reason, I guess, is that I don’t like a shorthand. I’d rather say what I mean. In Type 1, I don’t have a problem. I can tell my male friends that I want to see they’re alright, that I’m their ally in the world, that we share something that we don’t share with strangers—that is, I can tell them I love them. I don’t mind spelling it out. That’s why I’ve always shied away from using shorthands like ‘mate’. More recently I do use some nicknames but they’re almost always satirical—sharing a joke is another way of a friend and I showing love for each other.

I never use ‘mate’ in Types 2 or 3. And I’m probably wrong not to do so. I don’t use it in these contexts because I find it insincere. The feeling that it is trying to communicate is sincere, as I outlined above. And yet I’m repulsed by the fact that we humans have to resort to such euphemism. If we want to be kind to a stranger we should just be so. “Excellent work, excellent service,” my dad could say to the plumber instead of the awkward “cheers mate”, which deliberately avoids outright praise.

So I resent the fact that we have to resort to shorthand rather than saying what we really mean… except, of course, we’re not always capable of saying what we really mean. I’m guilty of that just as much as the next bloke. Maybe I should use ‘mate’ more. Just because I’ve thought about it and I have my theory about what it really means doesn’t mean to say that I can’t accept it and use it. This mini essay has been about thinking something through objectively, at one step removed from other people. But really I’m the same. If I want to be a part of this society I should step back in and be mates with anyone who’ll listen.

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