Why Do We Use Endearments?

Within close, loving relationships, why don’t we always just stick with given names when addressing our significant others? Well, everyone calls your girlfriend by her name. But you want something special, a name that only you call her, a name that when she hears it, she smiles because she knows it’s you. And so, because she’s cute and you teased her relentlessly about the salad diet she was on when you met, you affectionately call her ‘Bunny’ instead. 

There’s a reason for this; relationship experts generally agree that couples who have pet names and engage in idiosyncratic communication (read: made-up words, funny voices and random noises that often manifest in close couples) are actually healthier as this helps to build intimacy and exclusivity within a couple. In fact, your partner using an endearment that you like and appreciate early on in the relationship has been proven to increase your attraction to that partner.  

From the classics like Honey and Baby to the cringe-worthy Snookums and Snugglemuffin, personal endearments are nothing new. ‘Sweetheart’ – or ‘swete heorte’ if you want to get really nerdy and Middle English about it – has been around since the 13th century. Rather romantically, the first documentation of the word appears in the writings of an Anglo-Saxon saint and it was subsequently picked up by Chaucer in 1374, and centuries later, Shakespeare. ‘Sweetheart’ endures today along with ‘Darling’, having been around since 800AD, making it the oldest known pet name. 

Within families, it’s not unusual for parents to have endearments for their children too. In fact, this is where endearments and baby talk originate and holds the reasons why many of us engage in such communication in adult relationships. Professor Dean Falk of Florida State University states that “Baby talk is used really extensively, including cross-culturally, by mothers around the world.” Using baby talk expresses love and stimulates bonding. And, in a slightly Freudian manner, Falk suggests that when we use baby talk with our boyfriends or girlfriends, we are harking back to our ‘first love’, i.e. our mothers. More simply though, Falk suggests that baby talk makes adults feel more open, comfortable and ‘free’ because they don’t have to maintain the charade of being a mature adult. You can comfortably convert back to playful child’s-talk and have fun.  

New endearments are always being born of inside jokes and adorable observations. Your mates at school might have come up with a hilarious nickname for you that is more unique and personal. Dr Erin Heerey of Bangor University upholds the use of slightly demeaning playground nicknames in younger children, believing that they improve social skills and helps kids develop a sense of humour. She goes as far as to claim that names like ‘Shorty’ and ‘Chubs’ may even make kids more popular in the long run. Humans are drawn to creating groups and cliques where nicknames are often born of a shared experience, strengthening camaraderie and an identity within a group. This is evident in sports teams and the military where virtually no-one is known by their legal name. 

One of the most recent pet names to make it into the mainstream social consciousness is ‘bae’. No one can pinpoint the word’s exact origin but it is thought that ‘bae’ was being used in African American communities in the US during the early 2000’s. We also know that on March 14th, 2003, a user named ‘Trong’ added the first entry for ‘bae’ in the Urban Dictionary. Their definition was simple: “bastardization of the word ‘babe’”. 10 years later, ‘bae’ shot into the mainstream media with the ‘bae catch me slippin’ meme, featuring people pretending to be asleep in photos which were evidently selfies. With its accrued popularity, ‘bae’ also gained the additional interpretation: an acronym for ‘before anyone else’.   

Terms of endearment will always be personal, and sometimes cringy or embarrassing, but that’s the point! Used between good friends, a parent and child, or simply between partners, pet names build intimacy. They convey love and affection. Whether you plump for the standard ‘Babe’ or you’ve made up a completely new name for your significant other, (Elvis made up the name ‘Nungen’ to refer to his wife, Pricilla), keeping a name exclusively for someone seems to make the world a happier and more personal place.

Words by Rose Kendall


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