Terms of endearment

Recently in my comics feed, a Calvin and Hobbes re-run with endearments:

pooty pie, bitsy pookums, snoogy woogy — from Wiktionary:

term of endearment: a word, phrase, or nickname used as a term of address expressing affection (synonym: endearment)

The Wiktionary definition specifies that endearments (of all sorts) are terms of address (rather than expressions used referentially), and this is certainly their primary use. But, just as C(ount) Ns can be converted to uses as M(ass) Ns, and vice versa (see the Page on this blog on C/M postings), so Voc(ative) expressions (syntactically parenthetical rather than integrated into clause structure, and functioning as address terms) can be converted to uses as Ref(erential) expressions (serving syntactically as arguments or adjuncts), and vice versa.

So, the Voc bitsy pookums (above) can have Ref uses; Hobbes could say:

My bitsy pookums loves me.

In the other direction, many of the conventionalized Voc endearments — honey, baby, sugar, angel — clearly originated in Ref uses.

Hobbes’s endearments above are fresh playful inventions, but there’s also a stock of conventionalized Voc endearments.

From the DARE survey results of 1965-70, on the query for “Nicknames or affectionate names for a sweetheart”, with these results, in order, from the most frequent (501 responses) down to 9 responses:

honey, darling, dear, sweetie, baby, sweetheart, sweetie pie, sugar, lover, beau, honey bunch, doll, girl friend, hon, dearie, honey bun, love, angel, boy friend, sugar pie, sweet patootie, sugar lump, babe, lovie, lovie-dove, my girl, pet, baby doll, honey pie

You shouldn’t make too much of this list, especially the ordering of the items on it: the material was collected about 50 years ago, from primarily older and rural informants, so that what we see in the list is a report on mostly rural American usage from about a hundred years ago. Still, much endures.

There’s a lot more to be said on endearments. For one thing, my comments above are about generic endearments, addressed to some particular person but using an affectionate expression that might be used to anyone the speaker is close to. There are also nickname endearments, which are pet names / hypocoristics: affectionate versions of proper names. (These are known in some of the onomastic literature as pet names, but searching for them on-line pulls up mostly pet names ‘names for pets’ — Fido, Fluffy, etc. — an interesting topic in its own right, but not the same thing as hypocorism.)

In addition, the Voc/Ref distinction applies to all sorts of expressions other than endearments; for links to some material on address terms, see this Page on this blog.

4 Responses to “Terms of endearment”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I have a friend who calls his husband “dumpling”, in both second and third persons.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      In the 3rd person, does he treat dumpling as a proper N (Dumpling is a handsome guy) or as a common N (My dumpling is a handsome guy? The common-N treatment is the more common one for such Ns, but the proper-N treatment is also attested.

  2. TommyBoy Says:

    Gender-neutral references to ‘partner’ until the penultimate pronoun. A little bit disappointed…

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