When Alan Harris was young, there were a couple of big Babes around.
One was baseball hero Babe Ruth. The other was Olympic champion Babe Didrickson.
Harris, a 69-year-old Baltimore lawyer, says that's who he had in mind when he called a fellow lawyer "babe" during a legal proceeding five years ago. A Maryland appeals court judge didn't buy it.
Calling Harris's argument "singularly unpersuasive," Judge Sally Adkins ruled this week that lawyers can't go around calling each other babe in the halls of justice.
"When used to address another attorney in the context of a discovery deposition or court proceeding, all of the dictionary definitions of the word `babe' are gender-biased and derogatory," she wrote in a 32-page decision.
Adkins let stand a lower-court decision awarding attorney fees to Towson lawyer Susan R. Green.
"It was not my intention to seek any advantage or cause any harm," Harris said in an interview. "My generation uses the word `babe' all the time and not in a pejorative sense. Clients of mine call me babe."
Green, who advertises her legal practice in the Yellow Pages under a big headline that reads HARDBALL, said she "loved" the ruling.
"I can see that people are going to make me out to be some militant feminist, which I'm not," Green said. "If someone used the word `babe' in passing, I wouldn't necessarily mind. But it wasn't done like that. It was done to get a rise out of me. And if someone interferes with my job or my client's right to pursue legal remedies, that's unacceptable."
It's not the first time the word "babe" has created controversy.
After running a cover story in September on a female corporate executive touted as "The Toughest Babe in Business," Fortune magazine received some angry letters from women. The Los Angeles Times received a barrage of criticism in 1993 when it rewrote its stylebook in an effort to eliminate use of offensive terms like "babe," "gringo" and "Injun."
Informal terms of address have also become an issue in the legal world. Adkins's decision cited a 1989 report on gender bias in the courts that reported that "female attorneys feel demeaned when they are addressed informally" with terms "such as hon, dear, baby doll, honey and sweetheart."
The dispute arose in 1994 when Green's client, a woman, sued a man for allegedly giving her genital herpes. Harris, serving as the man's attorney, was taking a deposition from the woman when she went to her car to retrieve some documents. Harris said the woman was going to meet "another boyfriend."
Green told Harris the remark was in poor taste and asked him to refrain from making further derogatory remarks.
"It must have been in poor taste if Miss Green says it was in poor taste," Harris replied according to the transcript.
"You got a problem with me?" Green said.
"No, I don't have any problem with you, babe," Harris said.
"Babe?" Green exclaimed. "You called me babe? What generation are you from?"
"At least I didn't call you a bimbo," he said.
Another lawyer interjected, "Cut it out."
According to an affidavit filed by Green's legal assistant, Harris later called Green's office and asked, "Is the babe in?" The assistant said that Harris also referred to her as babe.
Harris denies making the calls. He says he wrote a letter to Green apologizing for any offense he had caused.
The legal wrangle that led to this week's ruling by Adkins began in the summer of 1995, when Green sought a court order barring Harris from contacting her clients or expert witnesses in the herpes lawsuit without permission. The order was granted, and Harris appealed.
In rejecting that appeal, Adkins said that Harris had "engaged in a crass attempt to gain unfair advantage through the use of demeaning language." She also rejected Harris's argument that Green had to expect some "rough and tumble" tactics during litigation.
"We have long passed the era when bias relating to sex, race, religion or other specified groups is considered acceptable as a litigation strategy," the judge wrote.
Harris said he respected the court's decision and hadn't decided if he would appeal.
"My daughter, who is summa cum laude in women's studies, says babe is a gender-neutral term. Some people take it pejoratively. Some people don't. I guess I was talking to the wrong person," he said.
Green said she hoped that the decision would make people think twice about "how they address their peers in court." Her only problem with the decision, she said, was the reaction of friends and acquaintances.
"Now everybody's calling me babe," she said, laughing. "It's my new nickname."