Pet Names Are for Pets

If I have one consistent shortcoming, it is that I am horrible at names. At a party, I am that person who greets most everyone with a “Heyyy…youuuu.” I can tell you what you were wearing, talking about and drinking, but I can’t tell you what the hell your mom wrote in your underwear. It’s a terrible habit, but sometimes it’s not my fault.

I recently spent four hours with our new upstairs neighbors, a couple straight out of college. During the evening, the boyfriend refused to let go of his girlfriend’s hand and when he spoke to her, he had to rub this entwined finger mass up and down her leg like a pet. Now, the affectionate Siamese-twin act isn’t even my real problem; the real problem is that after four hours I still didn’t know the girlfriend’s name.

I take responsibility for not remembering her name upon our first introduction; I blame the boyfriend for the 3 hours and 45 minutes following. But it occurred to me that this guy might not really know her name either because he wouldn’t stop calling her “Baby.”

Pet names symbolically suggest significant feelings toward another human being. It is a sign of affection and intimacy, but it also in a way validates and qualifies romance. In high school and in college, I remember picking out a “song” and bestowing a pet name to a beau because those were the perceived beginning steps to establishing a relationship. Now as an adult, it’s not that the honeymoon is over or romance has flown the coop, but the act itself just seems juvenile now. I have an independent life, I have a name and I know it is not “Honey” or “Sweetie” and it is definitely not &$%#($-ing “Baby.”

Show me a guy that likes to be called “Pookie.” This isn’t a sexist argument saying that macho men should be willing to be called by a fluffy pet name. No, this is a debate arguing that pet names can objectify a person. There is a sour side to those sweet words.

Contrary to my argument, however, M.I.T. linguists discovered that pet names increase the passion and longevity of a relationship. And in a review of findings by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, intimacy and trust can develop through a couple’s personal and private language, pet names and baby talk included.

But before Noam Chomsky starts chomping at the bit, let’s look at these psychological findings in relation to my neighbor’s “Baby” fixation. The Journal’s point that this communication system is private exposes a greater issue – my neighbor’s need to publicize it. This has two indications: Firstly, he wants to validate his relationship amongst his peers; and secondly, he wants to demonstrate his claim to this girl (no one else is allowed to call her “Baby”). Socially, these are intimate exchanges that should be kept private (or to a bare minimum publicly). There’s a reason why it is called “pillow talk.” What M.I.T failed to address is when do pet names become a manipulation tool or a sign of an unhealthy relationship? If pet names declare lovely-dovey feelings, when the fire dies, could pet names be used to mask true feelings, compensate for feelings lost or security issues? What if pet names are not spoken for the right reasons?

The use of “Baby” was as annoying to me as someone who overuses the word “like.” My neighbor’s very public exhaustion of the name might infer a relationship or internal insecurity. Phrases like, “Isn’t that right, Baby?” and to her, “Oh, Baby wouldn’t do something like that would she?” was downright condescending. No one likes the tool that refers to him or herself in the third person, but to speak about someone else in the third person who is sitting next to you warranted my evil stare across the room. In addition, by repeatedly calling her Baby, I failed to know not only her name but also who she was as a person. When a namesake can actually prohibit an identity, it’s not an affable title.

To be fair, this is not always a male problem, this just happens to be my personal story to put things into context. Both sexes are equally guilty, those that use pet names in an unhealthy manner and those that accept them under such conditions. The etymology of pet names comes from the Greek word hypocorism, which means, “to use child-talk.” I admit I’ve been guilty of baby talk from time to time, but context and audience is imperative to the appropriateness of it. And while we all want to feel loved, love does not come in the form of a cute name. While I disapproved of my neighbors’ interactions, I let the boyfriend drink my beer in my house and I never called him out on pet name habit for fear of being rude, and by doing this I helped keep “Baby” in the corner.

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