The language of love: English terms of endearment through the ages

Do your favorite pet names date from 10, 100, or 1000 years ago?
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A kiss may still be a kiss, but what we call loved ones has definitely changed as time’s gone by. As a naming agency (and collection of word nerds), we couldn’t resist exploring this evolution of endearment.

For instance, though hearts, honey, and bunnies are as apt metaphors for our beloved today as they were hundreds of years ago, bats, monkeys, and fish have thankfully gone out of favor. And what passed for a term of affection in the 15th century—Turtle? Pigsney? Bully?!—may sound more like a nasty epithet in the 21st.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, then, let’s walk down English lover’s lane. Get the big picture with our timeline and then dive into the stories behind these precious names below.

Historical timeline of terms of endearment in English from 800s to present

OG ENDEARMENTS

These sweet words are the oldest terms of endearment in English. Despite seismic changes in the language (try reading The Canterbury Tales, or better yet Beowulf, in the original), darling has remained the most popular name for those we love for more than 1,200 years.

  • Darling (first recorded in the 800s)
  • Dear (1200s) From the Old English for “of great value, beloved” VARIATIONS: Dearie/Deary (1600s)
  • Sweetheart (1200s) Interestingly, historians record the compound sweetheart as an endearment before either of its component words.

STRAIGHT TO THE POINT

  • Love (1400s) We’re surprised this wasn’t the oldest.
  • Lovey (1600s)
  • Lovey-Dovey (1700s)
  • Lovely (1700s)
  • Lovebug (1900s) This actual insect (AKA March fly, honeymoon fly) remains connected for several days after mating, even when flying. Do not attempt at home.

SWEET & TASTY

Foodsemy, or using food as a metaphor, is almost the whole enchilada in endearment. “I love you” becomes “I could eat you up!” pretty darn quick.

  • Apple of My Eye* (800s)
  • Cinnamon (1300s)
  • Honey (1300s) VARIATIONS: Honeycomb (1400s); Honeysop (a piece of bread soaked in honey, 1500s); Honeybunch, Honey-bun, Honey-Bunny, Honey Child, Honey Baby, Honey Pie, and Hon (all 1800s)
  • Sweet (1300s) VARIATIONS: Sweetikins (1500s), Sweeting and Sweetling (1600s), Sweetie (1700s), Sweet Thing (1800s), Sweetie-Pie (1900s)
  • Pudding, Puddin’ (1800s?)
  • Sausage (1800s?)
  • Dumpling (1800s?)
  • Huckleberry (1800s)
  • Sugar (1900s) VARIATIONS: Sugar Pie, Sugar Plum, Sugar Britches(!) (1900s)
  • Cupcake (1900s?)
  • Cookie (1900s)
  • Muffin (1900s)

FAUNA

Zoosemy, or using animals in metaphor, is also powerfully present in the endearment world. Mammals, especially the babies, are adorable, so of course these names have been popular. Birds can be as graceful and tender as your lady-love. And even reptiles and fish have been found sufficiently lovable to stand in for a paramour.

  • Bird (1300s)
  • Dove, Turtledove (1300s)
  • Chicken, Chick (1300s) VARIATIONS: Chickabiddy (1700s), Chick-a-Diddle and Chickadee (1800s)
  • Pigsney (1300s) Pronounced “pig’s knee,” derived from “pig’s eye”—how’s that for romantic?
  • Turtle (1400s) Because you can’t hurry love?—or, more likely, a short form of turtledove
  • Duck (1500s), Ducky (1800s) Still common in parts of the UK
  • Ladybird (1500s) This word actually debuted as an endearment, lady + bird, and only came to mean what we Yanks call a “ladybug” in the late 1600s.
  • Sparrow (1500s)
  • Mouse (1500s)
  • Creepmouse (1500s) We don’t get it either.
  • Marmoset (1500s) A small, soft-furred type of monkey—so pretty cuddly
  • Lamb (1500s)
  • Sparling (1500s) An old name for the European smelt—cuz fish are totes adorable (or, more likely, because it rhymes with darling)
  • Flittermouse (1600s) Otherwise known as a bat
  • Hen (1700s) Still common in Scotland
  • Pet (1700s) Still popular with older folks in the UK

LITTLE IS LOVABLE

Even a tiny Tyrannosaurus is cute(!), and there’s not much of a line between affectionate names we give our children and our partners (and anyone else we love, or even strangers we’re being friendly with, “Want some more coffee, hon?”). So most endearments represent a small thing or take on a diminutive prefix—such as ling, -kin, -y/-ie—to become one.

  • Poppet (1300s) A pretty child or a small human figure used in witchcraft—“I put a spell on you…”
  • Heartikin (1500s)
  • Mopsy (1500s) Diminutive of mop (“fool”) VARIATIONS: Moppet
  • Cherub (1600s) Angelic and little!
  • Boo (1700s) Short for baby, which oddly doesn’t appear until nearly 100 years later
  • Baby (1800s) VARIATIONS: Babe, Babydoll, and Babycake (1900s); Bae (2000s)
  • Cutie, Cutie Pie, Cutie Patootie (1900s)
  • Teddy Bear (1900s)
  • Shorty, Shawty (2000s)

FLORA

Bright and beautiful, flowers are an obvious choice as a term of affection, but vegetables? Actually, it’s not quite as weird as it seems. Since ancient times people have used the head as a metaphor for the person (an example of synecdoche), and so round things, like cabbages, pumpkins, and beans, are a (somewhat) understandable stand-in.

  • Daisy (1400s)
  • Honeysuckle (1600s)
  • Cabbage (1700s) Derived from the French mon petit chou (“my little cabbage”)—because the head of your beloved does indeed resemble this vegetable
  • Buttercup (1800s?)
  • Old Bean (1900s)
  • Pumpkin** (1900s)
  • Sweet Pea (1900s?)
  • Petal (1900s) Still common in the Northeast of England

SOMETHING BORROWED

  • Mon Cher (1600s) French for “my dear”
  • Acushla (1800s) From the Irish a chuisle (“O pulse [of my heart]”)
  • Bubele (1900s) From the Yiddish for “darling”
  • Schatz (1900s) German for “treasure,” “darling”

NOT WHAT YOU THINK

  • Bully (1500s) A good friend or sweetheart
  • Butting (1500s) Unclear origin—might have been coined from butt, a type of fish
  • Chuck (1500s) From the Middle English chuk (the sound of a chicken clucking)
  • Pug (1500s) A pet name and a type of toy
  • Frisco (1600s) Unclear origin—might be a pseudo-loan from the Italian for “frolic” or “freak”

LOVELY NONSENSE

  • Ding-Dong, Ding-Ding (1500s) Because they ring your bell?
  • Golpol (1500s) Unclear origin—might be related to gold-poll, “golden-headed”
  • Mully (1500s) Rare term for sweetheart
  • Nug (1600s) Unclear origin—might be a rhyme for pug, a pet name and a type of toy
  • Diddums (1800s)
  • Schnookums, Snookums (1900s)

HEAVENLY

  • Angel (1500s) VARIATIONS: Angel Baby (1900s?)
  • My Soul (1800s?)
  • Sunshine (1900s?)

A LITTLE POSSESSIVE?

Nearly all the endearments here can be, and often are, paired with My (My Heart, My Sunshine, My Darling) or My Little. In fact, add the latter to almost any noun—particularly an animal or a food item—and you’ve created an endearment. My Little Snail, My Little Legume, My Little Haggis

***

As for what’s next, who knows what lovers will cook up to express their affection. But while the letters may shift around a little, the sentiments conveyed are likely to be pretty much the same. As the song goes, the fundamental things apply as time goes by.

Sources

OED.com
Terms of endearment in English, English Today
Etymonline.com
Grammarphobia.com, Blog, 07/2016
New Republic, The history of “sweetie” and 8 other old-fashioned terms of endearment
INews, The old terms of endearment you could revive for Valentine’s Day
Thesaurus.com, 8 unique terms of endearment
The Free Library, Local terms of endearment
Love English, What does shawty mean

*Originally, a mistranslation of Psalm 17:8, brought into English by King Aelfred himself.
**Yes, Smartypants, pumpkin is botanically a fruit, but it’s used as a vegetable.

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