It’s no secret that couples often speak their own language with one another. When two people become close, they develop their own inside jokes, codes, and nicknames. When we see others doing this, especially in public, it can quickly go from cute to sickening.
However, cutesy nicknames and baby talk between two people in love may actually be part of a cycle that only strengthens their bond. When two people in a relationship have a secret language, it draws them closer together. And when two people are exceptionally close, they invariably create some sort of special code to speak together.
These codes quickly become very important. One study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that a couple’s ridiculous nicknames and sneaky code words had a direct positive connection to their relationship satisfaction.
Other studies have found that couples who maintain a five-to-one ratio of positive-to-negative interactions tend to remain happy. That seems like a given, but the role that secret language plays in that is dramatic.
Using silly pet names and cracking inside jokes is a fast way to make both partners feel special, and that ramps up the number of positive interactions faster than less cutesy conversation. It’s no wonder that all cultures seem to have their own strange-sounding but absolutely standard pet names.
To the average English speaker, these nicknames likely don’t seem too abnormal. “Sweet pea” is a reasonably common nickname in the United States, particularly in the Southeast. In part, this owes to the small flower’s beauty and the luck of having the word “sweet” in its name.
On the other hand, it likely has something to do with the sweet pea plant’s historic reputation as an aphrodisiac. As an aside, all varieties of sweet pea produce toxins and should not be used to induce relations, no matter how sweet they may be.
“Poppet” is far more common in the United Kingdom, although it is quite dated now. While “love” is a far more popular pet name, “poppet” is still in use and is far weirder. It started as a pet name back when the term referred chiefly to a puppet or doll.
In some circles, such as those populated by modern-day witches, it still does. This is likely why the nickname comes across as so strange. True, it can be read as referring to a loved one as a cute little doll. But it can also be interpreted as calling your significant other your puppet, which is a little bit supervillain for the modern paramour.
Down under, “possum” is a perfectly acceptable nickname for your lover. For non-Australian women dating Australian men, this is a problem. The continent of Australia has a reputation for taking perfectly normal animals and turning them into something monstrous.
However, the trend is reversed for the Australian possum. Whereas most of the world’s opossums (a different animal than a possum) tend to be viewed as massive rats that rummage in trash cans and play dead when noticed, Australia’s possums look a bit more soft, fluffy, and friendly. So, despite the culture clash, it isn’t much worse than a lover using “kitten” as a pet name.
There are many French pet names that are fairly well-known due to their popularity in the media. Mon coeur (“my heart”), ma moitie (“my other half”), ma cherie (“my darling”), and mon tresor (“my treasure”) are all terms of endearment that we tend to hear in soap operas or anytime a charming foreigner appears on-screen.
Mon chou is less commonly heard beyond the French-speaking populations of the world but is widespread within them. It translates easily to “my cabbage” and is similar to English pet names like “honey,” “pumpkin,” or even “cutie pie.”
To the French ear, it isn’t strange sounding at all and tends to be understood to mean “my favorite one.” The French may have a better view of cabbage than many of us. But what makes mon chou an interesting pet name is really its variations.
French is a language with many diminutive forms that lovers use to amp up the cuteness and sickly-sweet sound of the phrase. Ma choupette is the feminine form which uses the diminutive -ette by default. Mon choupinou for men and ma choupinette for women is one way that speakers simply make the word sound cuter.
A more exaggerated form of this is mon chouchou and ma chouchoutte. Finally, there is the version reserved for men and young boys: mon petit chou (“my little cabbage”).
Japanese is not a language for terms of endearment as we often think of them. In Japan, levels of familiarity are often achieved by altering the level of formality used, adding and removing honorifics, and chopping names into shorter nicknames.
The most common way to refer to a person in Japanese is with their last name and the honorific -san. Anything more familiar than that can be said to be a term of endearment and a sign of closeness. Using close language when there is no such closeness is a good way to earn disdain.
But when there is closeness, the honorific may switch first. For a younger girl, you may use -chan at the end of her name. For a younger boy, you may use -kun. For a close friend from childhood, one might go so far as to add -cchi to the end of their name or to just one syllable of their name. Taichiro may become Tacchi to a close friend or lover.
As stated above, using familiarity where there is none often creates problems in Japanese conversations. For this reason, many don’t even use the word anata (“you”) so often as they do the person’s name with an appropriate honorific. Due to this particular quirk of Japanese, anata has become a perfectly acceptable pet name that married women often use to refer to their husbands.
In other words, it is normal to refer to one’s husband as “you” and count it as a pet name. To go a step further in Japanese, a woman might playfully refer to her husband as anta, a much more casual and relaxed form of anata that is considered extremely rude when said to a stranger.
Imagine calling a stranger on the street “sweetheart” or “dumpling,” and that’s fairly close to the reaction. But one way of translating anta does pretty much boil down to calling your partner “hey you.”
In Latin American countries like Ecuador and Argentina, they tell it like it is when it comes to pet names. Nicknames tend toward the descriptive, which leads to the usual sort of compliments like chiquito/a (“little one”) or lindo/a (“beautiful”).
However, it also paves the way for descriptive nicknames like pobrecito/a (“poor little one”), loco/a (“crazy”), viejo/a (“old man/woman”), flaco/a (“skinny”), and, of course, gordo/a (“fatty”). All those are appropriate pet names and observations without much stigma attached.
A speaker of Latin American Spanish may call a close friend or family member any of these to their face without reproach, and lovers may croon softly to one another with the exact same words.
These are just descriptive words. In some ways, it’s stranger to think that we can’t describe people honestly without insulting them in English-speaking countries. It is the context that makes all the difference.
When calling someone “fat” or “skinny” in English, the understood context is that the person has failed in some way to manage their own body shape. When one is called gordo/a, the implication is most often that the person is healthy and eating well.
There are times when someone is too far removed to be using such blunt descriptors, but a significant other will happily toss around gordo/a anytime and mean no offense. If you date someone from these areas, your in-laws will happily and innocently inform you when you look a bit plump.
The people of the Netherlands have a similar reputation for blunt communication. There is a no-fuss approach to conversation that means people will say what they mean and mean what they say. Anyone who doesn’t may come across as insincere or, worse, a liar.
The Dutch maintain that mincing words wastes time and energy that could be put toward better things, while many English-speakers blush at the things a Dutch friend might say. Despite the culture clash, the approach works well for the people of the Netherlands. In 2013, UNICEF ranked the children of various countries based on their overall sense of well-being. Dutch kids were right on top.
So, what sort of pet names are used in such an idyllic place?
Mijn poepie for starters. This charming turn of phrase translates to “my little poop.” This term is used in romantic and platonic relationships and with both adults and children. It may also be one big reason why the Dutch don’t have a reputation for romance among other European countries. Its close cousin, scheetje (“little fart”), may be the nail in that coffin.
But English speakers shouldn’t raise too big of a stink about it, considering that “poopsie” is a pet name still in use. At least one gentleman was willing to admit to calling his wife “poopstink” on the worldwide web where all could see and read it.
Just to be fair, the Dutch also have many perfectly usual pet names. Schat (“treasure“), lekker ding (“delicious thing”), and dropje (“licorice”) all have reasonably normal meanings.
Mausezahnchen is one of many long, silly compound phrases that Germans love to bandy about among loved ones. This one just happens to mean “little mouse tooth.”
German nouns are a funny thing on their own. Adjectives get smashed onto nouns to make long word chains regularly, so lovey-dovey Germans have to step it up if they want to make something appropriately ridiculous to call their beaus.
“Mouse” is a common and acceptable term of endearment in Germany. So lovers there don’t likely experience the same shudder that some English speakers might upon being called something that resides in a rodent’s mouth.
The list of massive, cutesy compounds is quite long. Igelschnauzchen breaks down to “little hedgehog snout,” honigkuchenpferd means “honey-cake horse,” and knutschkugel translates to “smooch ball.”
If you peruse a longer list of German endearments, you may notice some similarities to previous items on this list. Moppelchen means something like “little chubby person,” similar to gordo/a. Hasenfurzchen mimics the Dutch scheetje by calling a loved one a “fart,” but one-ups it by making it a much cuter “bunny fart.”
German pet names are also chock-full of animals and sweets, including bears, bunnies, mice, hedgehogs, strawberries, and tarts. One particularly ambitious appellation, schnuckiputzihasimausierdbeertortchen, means “cutie-pie-bunny-mouse-strawberry-tart.” It’s not so much a sweet nothing as a sweet everything-but-the-kitchen-sink.
This Persian phrase translates to “a mouse should eat you,” which is a little more threatening than charming if you aren’t familiar with it. The phrase might be better understood to mean something like a mouse could eat you or, to explain further, you are something so small that a mouse could swallow you whole.
It essentially means that the recipient of the compliment is cute. Children are more often than not subjected to cheek pinching while an adult cheerfully informs them of their suitability to become part of a mouse’s balanced breakfast.
This is one of the more colorful Persian affectionate phrases, but there are a few others that are definitely worth noting. Jeegareto bokhoram (“I want to eat your liver”) and jeegare man-ee (“you are my liver”) are not ways of indicating that Hannibal Lecter levels of cannibalism are about to ensue. Instead, these are common ways of pledging one’s love.
Along the same lines, ghorbanat beram means “may I be sacrificed for you.” It earns its notation here for the drama factor alone, but the meaning is genuine. If a Persian speaker says any of these three phrases, they want you to know that they would do anything for you. They might still feed you to a mouse, though.
Ywn ghzal refers to the hypnotic eyes of a gazelle. Abd Al-malik Ibn Marwan, born 646/647 in Medina, Arabia, was the fifth caliph, the leader of a Muslim community of the Umayyad Arab dynasty centered in Damascus. He also historically once caught a gazelle with such hauntingly beautiful and enchanting eyes that he had to release the animal.
It is said that the gazelle’s eyes reminded him of his beloved’s own mesmerizing stare. In Arabic poetry, a woman’s gaze is often described as lethal spears that snag a man and keep him captive. Thus, men will use this phrase to woo a woman whose spell they feel they are under, especially if the feeling is not mutual.
Ghazal, pronounced a bit like “guzzle,” itself may also be used as a pet name, as women in poetry were often metaphorically referred to as gazelles. In these poems, hunters would often be struck by the stare of a gazelle and would linger on in lovesickness until they died.
Fittingly, the term ghazal is also the name of a form of Arabic poetry where the focus is on sexual desire, the pursuit of love, and sometimes mysticism and religion. These beautiful medieval poems follow a complex rhyme scheme where words are repeated at the ends of lines while only the preceding content changes.
In English-speaking countries, we rarely refer to people to their faces by a descriptor. This tends to be reserved for describing someone to a third person who may not know the individual. Openly describing a person to his face can be considered rude. After all, we know what we look like more often than not.
Similar to the culture shock of gordo/a in Spanish, Portuguese also uses descriptors as a normal and acceptable way to refer to a friend. Alemao (“German”) or Polaco (“Pole”) are used to call white friends regardless of their actual ethnicity or nationality.
Similarly, negao is used to refer to a black friend. The term usually isn’t meant offensively. Like gordo/a, it’s a simple descriptor. It’s a racial variation of amigao (“big friend”), which is complimentary.
However, it has caused confusion for many dark-skinned, English-speaking transplants in Brazil. Skin tone is very important to the equation—Brazilian races break down to indigenous, white, yellow, brown, and black.
Race is complex in Brazil and sometimes difficult for foreigners to understand. Negao is no more negative than Alemao unless a rude tone is used, but that doesn’t mean that Brazil is without its racial tensions. Families will often be composed of people who are classified as white, yellow, brown, or black, but there is a clear hierarchy.
Tightly curled black hair is referred to as cabelo ruim (“bad hair”), and being viewed as not black is a huge social boost for Brazilians. In recent years, Brazil has tried to downplay this and its history in the slave trade. Naturally, that’s easier said than done. Nevertheless, referring to someone’s race remains a common term of endearment.
Ben dan is a term that women often use playfully with their husbands and boyfriends. It means “dumb egg.” It has its origins in schoolyard bullies and is about as offensive as calling something stupid or silly.
Eggs work hard in Mandarin to fill out the insult roster. Huai dan (“naughty egg”) is used for bad people, and hun dan (“confused egg”) functions similarly to the word “bastard” in English.
Finally, wan dan (“finished egg”) is an expletive. In conversation, it can be used to say someone is in deep trouble. So when a woman calls her husband ben dan, she is teasing him that he is silly or maybe in some kind of playful trouble.
Mandarin Chinese has its share of beautiful terms of endearment as well. A term pronounced chenyu luoyan translates as the seemingly nonsensical phrase “diving fish, swooping geese.” The phrase tells two Chinese stories at once, though.
The first is about Xi Shi, a woman so beautiful that her face could make fish forget to swim and geese forget to fly. Thus, the fish would dive while absently staring at her and the geese would swoop to the ground for the same reason. Wang Zhaojun was another historical beauty responsible for grounding the geese, and lovers can liken their beloved to both women in one fell swoop using this phrase.
Renee Chandler is an Atlanta-based graphic designer and writer. She is currently coauthoring a novel that you can preview and support on Patreon at www.patreon.com/pterohog.