There are scientific reasons why we give our partners pet names — and they can say a lot about your relationship

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  • If you use pet names, it might be because your mother used them with you.
  • Research shows that using cute nicknames is a sign your relationship is strong.
  • There are hundreds of variations from around the world, so you could try out a new one on your partner for Valentine’s Day.
  • However, it’s important to make sure your partner is okay with the cutesy names, as some people really hate them.
  • Insisting on using terms like “babydoll” when they’re unwanted could indicate disrespect.

The idea of being called “babe” or “sweetheart” makes some people shudder. For others, pet names are so ingrained into their lives that if their partner calls them by their real name, they know something serious must have happened.

If you love to come up with new idioms to show your affection, this could be linked to your mother, according to Dean Falk, a professor of neuroanthropology at Florida State University.

She told Broadly that ultimately, pet names are a bit like baby talk, which exists to help babies learn languages while expressing love at the same time to bond mother and child.

“My hypothesis is an extremely simple one,” Falk told Broadly. “Couples, speaking this way, harken back to their own experience when they were infants and to their first love, their mother.”

Pet names can be a good sign for your relationship…

Whether you’ve earned a new nickname from an inside joke or you’re both the kind of people who use couple-y terms, pet names can be a good sign that a romantic relationship is going well.

Suzanne Degges-White, a professor of counseling and higher education at Northern Illinois University, agrees, saying in a blog post on Psychology Today that using personal idioms is a sign your relationship is solid.

Just like we can get to know our partners so well that a simple glance can convey how we’re feeling, pet names are another way of appreciating that closeness.

One study from 1993, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, studied 154 couples to look at the correlation between pet name idioms and relationship satisfaction.

The research found that the satisfied husbands and wives reported more idioms than those who were unsatisfied.

However, the use of pet names declined over time. Couples married less than five years with no children used them the most, while couples in later stages used them the least, suggesting pet names are usually conjured up during the honeymoon period.

“I think it’s a really human, natural behavior to take language and shape it for our own purposes,” the lead author of the study, Carol J. Bruess, told Scientific American. “I think that’s how nicknames evolve. We name things, we give things symbols, and over time we tend to naturally manipulate those symbols toward a certain outcome.”

…But only if your partner actually likes them

Still, there could also be a more sinister side. Nicknames should be respectful, and if your partner is repeatedly calling you something you’ve already said you hate, it could be a sign they don’t respect you.

“Sometimes pet names are used to infer power over another,” wrote Degges-White. “Calling a female server ‘Honey’ or ‘Babe’ can be a way to call attention to your view of the role as subservient; it can be the same as calling females in the office ‘girls’ instead of co-workers or colleagues.

“According to many traditions and philosophies, there is great power in naming things and when this power is wielded by those who choose to use it to their own advantage, nicknames and other nomenclature-related communications can do great harm.”

Different languages have their own versions

There are lots of variations of pet names people use in different countries around the world.

In the UK, we tend to use words for animals or food, which also seems to be a general theme around the globe. The French say “Mon Petit Chou” which means my little cabbage, or cream puff. In the Netherlands, people call their girlfriends “Dropje,” meaning candy, and the Spanish say “Media Naranja,” which means half-orange – the suggestion being that when they’re together, they make a whole orange.

In Thailand, a loved one might be called “Chang Noi,” or little elephant, and an Arabic pet name is “Ghazal,” or gazelle. An Italian boyfriend might call you “Orsacchiotto,” meaning little bear, a German may say “Spatz” for sparrow, and a Polish person might call you a little mouse, or “myszka.”

“The use of pet names for our loved ones shows that most humans feel a need to express their affection in words, even when body language, a loving glance, or a hug would express the same,” Katja Wilde, Head of Didactics at Babbel told Business Insider.

“It’s also an area of language where the speakers tend to be very imaginative; pet names often come in different variations or are derived from each other in more or less corny neologisms which few people would want to share with the rest of the world, making pet names a very private area of language.”