Nicola here, reflecting on the way in which people have expressed their affection for each other over the centuries. I started thinking about this last week when a reader asked me 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 14th century. (Back in the days when Henry VIII actually liked Anne Boleyn he called her sweetheart a lot.) "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.
By coincidence, the BBC also published a list last week of the ten most unusual endearments people choose to describe their beloved, so I thought I would share some of those with you today and also talk a bit about the historical background to terms of endearment.
A Sweet Tooth
Like sweetheart, the word honey 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 endearment 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.
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!
In A Pig’s Eye
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.”
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 being much admired in Japan.
Other Birds and animals
“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 MW Montagu described a ball where there were “several couple of true turtles… saying soft things to one another.”
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.
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.
Shakespeare’s Sweet Chuck
Shakespeare contributed a great many words and phrases to the language and so it is only appropriate that he should have given us some fine terms of endearment. In Romeo and Juliet the nurse calls Juliet a ladybird. Then there is “sweet chuck,” an ancient variant on “chicken.” Chuck is still used affectionately in the north of England, and chicken was another endearment I heard a lot when I was growing up.
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!
Jane Austen's Restraint
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.” Isaballa'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 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? Has anyone ever called you "my little marmoset"? 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 tem of endearment meaning sweetheart!)