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When pet names go wrong

Terms of endearment help bring people together. They are a way of displaying affection and familiarity between couples, parents, their children and friends.

But sometimes they go wrong.

I found an example in Ian McEwan’s recent book Nutshell, a book of many quirks, not least that its narrator is yet to be born and is floating around in utero. But another quirk in the book is only slightly less perplexing: a character refers to his lover as ‘his mouse’.

You might assume this apparent term of affection describes a meek, twitchy, beady-eyed creature, but instead it is used towards a woman who is “blond and braided like a Saxon warrior, beautiful beyond realism’s reach” (at least as described by the unreliable and underdeveloped narrator).

And so, this term seems not only ill-fitting, but also faintly insulting. It is not the only time I’ve noticed the apparent disjoint between a person and their term of endearment.

My brother, who is unreservedly in love with his first child, a girl who is as gorgeous as a storybook illustration, calls her a ‘little peanut’. And before you ask, this was not triggered by the way she appeared in an ultrasound before she was born. After hearing it in reference to my niece, I have come to agree that there is something cute about the word itself (less so, its alternative name — a ‘goober’), although I’m not sure if I thought so beforehand.

When I first started going out with my husband, I was also a little surprised by the term of endearment with which he referred to me. While, as an impressionable 20-something, I might have chosen the more complimentary ‘beautiful’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘lovely’ or even ‘precious’ as a pet name, instead he took to calling me ‘chicken’.

┬áTo this day, I have no idea why. Don’t get me wrong, I love a Woolworths barbeque chook and believe that butter chicken is king of the curries. But as far as pet names, it’s not great. I console myself that it could have been a lot worse and he could have called me his mouse. And, eventually I grew to appreciate the fondness conveyed in the name, while still baffled at its origins (was it the way I walked/dressed/ate?).

As a child, I received a more common term of endearment, but I was still a little bewildered when my mother and grandmother often called me ‘darling’. Apart from watching ‘Darling Buds of May’, I didn’t hear the word elsewhere, and had little idea why it was used in this affectionate (occasionally cautionary) way or what it really meant.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the term ‘darling’ derives from the word ‘dear’, defined as ‘regarded with deep affection’.

Despite the beauty of this meaning, it is not always spoken with such affection. According to Urban Dictionary, the word ‘darling’ isn’t used as regularly any more between younger couples as ‘it can sound very patronizing and old’.

Now, as a mother, it is a way I often address my children, remembering a childhood in which the word was used so regularly. Now I realise the weight of affection that single words can carry.

However, I perceived an even greater significance in the term when my mother told me that she remembered her deceased mother calling her ‘darling’, and found that she missed being referred to in this way. It is a term so specific in its reach, shared among only a few of our most adored. While I love my brothers and friends, I would never call them ‘darling’.

Despite their intentions, terms of endearment are not always received in the way they are offered. A few years ago, Yahoo wrote that ‘babe’ was the most hated pet name used in relationships. Other despised choices were ‘muffin’ (obviously!), ‘pumpkin’ and ‘baby doll’. Unsurprisingly, ‘sexy pants’ didn’t go down well, either. Perhaps I should be more grateful for ‘chicken’.

Even the common use of ‘baby’ as a term of endearment is a little strange, when you think about it, referring as it does to a very young human. However, it isn’t just English speakers that use it. Many languages also use the term, including the Chinese baobei and the French bebe.

And while I might have been a little disappointed by ‘chicken’, I can’t claim to be the purveyor of taste when it comes to pet names. My husband and I used to scoff when a couple we were friends with called each other ‘sweetie’, but after seven years of marriage and three children, we often use the term ‘sweetheart’. Obvious? Yes. Corny? A little, especially when mimicked by my brothers. But far, far better than it could have been.

So, whether you’re darling or babe, chicken or mouse, take heart that your pet name is being spoken with affection… That is, unless your lover’s pet name of choice is ‘muffin’. In that case, run for the door as fast as those sexy pants can carry you.

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