Terms of Endearment

Nicola here. Back in 2013 – ten years ago! – I wrote a blog piece reflecting on the way in which people have expressed their affection for each other over the centuries, which a month or so ago Pat Wench rediscovered when she was searching for Regency terms of endearment. We all got chatting about this again and I thought it would be fun to dig out and update the old post as it’s such an interesting topic for discussion. Times change and terms of endearment change with them – so here’s a new take on our favourite sweet nothings.

One day in 2013, a reader queried if my use of the endearment “sweetheart” was authentic to the Regency period. I was pretty sure that the word originated long before the 19th century but I ran to check my dictionary anyway and found that sweetheart was first used in the late 13th century. Originally written as two words, “swete” and “heart” it meant someone who made your heart beat faster. Back in the days when Henry VIII actually liked Anne Boleyn, he called her sweetheart a lot. Variations on this are “sweeting” which dates from 1350 and “sweetikins” which – extraordinarily, was first used in about 1600!

“Darling” is even earlier usage, dating to before the 12th century. Evidently finding an affectionate term for a loved one is something people have been doing for a long, long time.

Other words that sound more modern than they are include “honey”, which has been used an endearment since the fourteenth century. It derives from the Old English word “hunig” and is also found as a term of affection in many other languages. In the 16th century a Scots poet romantically called his love a “honey sop” which is a piece of bread soaked in honey. In the same verse he compared her to a “swete posset” a drink made from hot milk curdled with ale, sugar and spice. That might not sound very attractive to us but on a cold Scottish night it might be just what you needed! 

Whilst honey in all its forms works as a complement in the Germanic languages it doesn’t translate well into the French. If you call a French person “miel” they may think you are suggesting that they are a bit of a sticky mess. To endear yourself to the French, go for “chouchou” which literally means “little cabbage.” This suggests something small and round and like a delicious (chou) pastry.

 In South American Portuguese the word “chuchu” means a squash and the word “chuchuzinho,” little squash, is a term of affection in Brazil. I suppose this is pretty close to pumpkin!

It was not only sweets and vegetables that were used to express love in the past. In Chaucer’s day it was complimentary to compare someone to some of the more attractive spices. In the Miller’s Tale he wrote: “My faire bryd, my swete cynemome.” Spices were expensive and exotic in Chaucer’s day – pretty special, in fact – so being a stick of cinnamon was a real compliment! 

Hard as it is to believe, the word “pigsnie” deriving from pig’s eye, was once a term of great admiration. I first came across the word pigsnie used affectionately when I read The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis. Again, this dates back to the time of Chaucer who wrote admiringly: “She was a prymerole, (primrose) a pigggesnye, for any lord to leggen in his bed.”

I’m told that the Japanese also admire fine eyes and a particular compliment in Japan is to call someone Tamago gata no kao, an egg with eyes, the classic oval-shaped face apparently being much admired in Japan.

“Little dove” may be the earliest recorded term of endearment there is, as it is mentioned in the Bible in the Song of Songs. “Oh my dove… Let me see thy countenance.” Dove is still a term of affection in Russia to this day. Interestingly the word “turtle” which was also used to mean “lover” as early as the 16th century derives from turtle dove rather than the turtle with the shell. This term was still popular in the 18th century when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described a ball where there were “several couple of true turtles… saying soft things to one another.”

Meanwhile it is the term chang noi, “little elephant,” that is used affectionately in Thailand, elephants being amongst the most prized of animals in Thai culture. 

When I was growing up in the North of England I was frequently called “pet.” This northern term of endearment is very old and was found only in Scotland and the North of England until the mid 18th century when it started to spread south. Comparing your loved one to a favourite tamed animal is very cute, furry and cuddly.

And speaking of Scotland, what about the word “hen”? It seems to take non-Scots people by surprise, but it’s not very different from “duck” or “chicken” which are used elsewhere in the British Isles to signify affection. “Sweet chuck,” is an ancient variant on “chicken” that can be found in Shakespeare. Chuck is still used affectionately in the north of England, and chicken was another endearment I heard a lot when I was growing up.

Hen was first seen in print in 1768 and used by Robert Burns in his poem Simmer in 1792: “Tak this frae me, ma bonie hen: It’s plenty beets the luver’s fire!

Less attractive to our modern taste, perhaps, is the comparison of a loved one to a bat or “flitter-mouse.”  Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, used this term of endearment in a play published in 1610. The heroine was so touched to be compared with a bat that she kissed the hero!

Some terms of affection have sinister origins, however. The word “poppet” originated in the 1300s as a small human figure used in sorcery. Its usage had changed by the late 14th century to also mean a small and dainty person.

Jane Austen did not show intimate scenes between characters so it is not surprising that her characters are so seldom demonstrative in their use of language. The occasional use of the word “dear” and the reference to a spouse by their formal name is about as affectionate as they get. The only character who appears to be addicted to terms of endearment is Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey who calls Catherine Morland “dearest, sweetest Catherine.” Isabella’s terms of endearment are empty of true affection. Jane also pokes fun at Mrs Elton whose use of the term “caro sposo,” “dear husband” seems pretentious and flowery given the restraint with which the other characters speak.

Some other endearments that sound modern to us actually have origins much earlier than you might imagine. I had no idea that “baby” was first recorded as a term of endearment back in 1839. Even bunny, with or without the snuggle, dates back to the 1680s in Scotland! 

Do you have a favourite term of endearment? Or one you can’t stand? Are there unusual local terms of endearment used where you live? (Just out of interest, the word “Wench” originated as a wanton woman but by the 1580s had become a term of endearment meaning sweetheart!)

22 thoughts on “Terms of Endearment”

  1. They say chuck in New Zealand too – ‘chook’ which struck me as interesting as it’s quite North Westerly in UK but NZ language is heavily Scottish influenced.

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    • That’s really interesting, Jen. Yes, I’ve only heard chicken or chook in the North of England but I didn’t realise NZ language was heavily influenced by Scottish dialect. That makes sense now you’ve pointed it out!

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  2. What an interesting post. I had no idea some of these terms went back so far. As for myself, on thinking about it, I use “sweetie” for an adult or “sweetie pie or cutie pie” for a child quite often. Actually, I use a variety of the terms.

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    • It’s amazing to think what a long history some of these terms have, isn’t it. People have been calling each other “sweetie” for centuries!

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  3. There’s “doll”, which sounds a bit old-fashioned now, as in “Guys and Dolls”, but I don’t know that it was around as a term of endearment very long. “Poppet” maybe, and “pet”.
    Speaking of pets, there’s “kitten”, but not “puppy”—not all pets are equal? Then young creatures leads to “Baby” and “Babe”. Do these have a long history? I’ll have to look them up.

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    • I remember “doll” being used. Lil! You don’t hear it around here at all these days but I suppose there are fashions in these words as much as anything else. According to my dictionary, “kitten” came in as a female term of endearment around 1900 and “baby” or “babe” around the same time. “Puppy” was used to mean “obnoxious young man” from the 1600s! How unfair to puppies, which are definitely as cute as kittens!

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  4. What a wonderful post, Nicola! It’s fascinating to know that all these endearments have been around for so long. I was particularly intrigued by ‘flitter-mouse’ as bat in Swedish is ‘fladdermus’, so obviously the same thing. I’d never heard it used as an endearment though! I don’t really like ‘poppet’ and now that you’ve explained the origin maybe that’s why? 😀

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    • How interesting that the Swedish word for bat is so close to the English one, Christina. That must come from the same origin. I agree with you about “poppet”. There is definitely something sinister about it!

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  5. One of my Heroes refers to his Heroine’s daughter as “Moppet” for a dear small child. That was first used in the early 17th century from the word “moppe” for baby or ragdoll. It’s interesting how many of those old terms of endearment are still around and how they have evolved to fit our language today. My grandniece is my moppet.

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  6. In Wales we use Cariad, it’s a very encompassing word. Its Sweetheart. Darling Beloved and is often used to refer to small children as well. It’s one word, but covers a multitude of affection.

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  7. The one I use is honey, but there’s also honeybunch, honeypie, sugar, or sugarpie. I’ve always gotten a kick out of German terms of endearment, Schatzi, Schönheit, Schnucki, Puppi(meaning doll) and Liebling or Liebchen.

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    • Thanks for sharing the German terms of endearment, Karin. That was a lovely memory. My grandfather loved German and often called me Liebchen when I was a little girl!

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  8. What a fascinating post, Nicola. I, too, was surprised to learn how long ago some terms of endearment developed.

    My mother (Hungarian but raised in the Netherlands) used the term ‘Darling’ with great panache. I could not carry it off and would sound silly! I can’t think of any endearments that I currently use, but my husband sometimes calls me Honey.

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  9. I’m so glad I found this article! Recently I used “baby” as a term of endearment in my novel set in the Victorian era. An ARC reader gave me feedback saying I had used some anachronisms such as “baby” which was too modern. I caved in and changed it. I must have looked it up at the time of writing, but forgot. And it was only used once in the whole novel, so it wasn’t a big deal. But I wish I had found this article before, to be able to defend my choice 🤣 I’m saving this article for future reference because I’m always struggling to find terms of endearment.

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    • The word “baby” does sound too modern for its date, doesn’t it. I thought that – it was such a surprise to see when it was first used. I have a book called English through the ages which I refer to for words that are appropriate to their time period. It’s very useful for disagreements with readers or copy editors

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  10. Thank you for this post, Nicola. It’s fascinating to see the history of endearments.

    I use sweetie face for a baby or toddler.

    I have a deep aversion for empty compliments that are just a throwaway without any real affection, or it’s used to get something that is conditional from a user or control type of individual.

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    • That’s an interesting point, Patricia. A lot of people do use empty endearments, I think, and you can usually tell which are sincere and which are not!

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