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700-00529634 © Chris Hendrickson/Masterfile
700-00529634 © Chris Hendrickson/Masterfile

Terms of Endearment

by Barbara Wallraff

Even a language expert can have a difficult time describing love


Yes, love is a many-splendored thing - but sometimes a person, in her down-to-earth moments, may feel as if a relationship is a series of problems to be solved. A few of these have to do with language.

What terms should a new couple use to refer to each other? Are they "boyfriend" and "girlfriend"? "Partners"? "Significant others"? "Sigs" - a still rare but up-and-coming descriptor? Or the retro and highly specific "POSSLQs" (persons of opposite sexes sharing living quarters - pronounced poss-ul-kew)? Some think of their relationship as so exceptional that it demands an exceptional word. A literary fellow I know introduced his new girlfriend to me as his "inamorata" - and I had to stop my lip from assuming a snide curl. Relationships are only that special from the inside. If I'd overheard him whispering "inamorata" in her ear, that would have impressed me. Said to anyone other that the inamorata herself, though, a word like that turns both members of the couple into characters in an opéra bouffe.

A related problem for new couples is how to describe what they're doing together. Are they "dating," "seeing each other," "having a fling," "going out," "an item," or what? "We're just friends" has a particular, non-romantic meaning. "We're friends with privileges" is racier, if downright anti-romantic. I happen to like the word "courting," even if some people will find that it comes from the same Gilbert and Sullivan show as "inamorata." Let's try it out: "So, are you two together?" "Well, we're courting." End of conversation, while a little dignified mystery remains, eh? Only someone really nosy and awful will persist: "What's that supposed to mean?" Whereupon it's possible to remain polite and give that someone the answer he or she deserves. "Oh, I don't know. Nothing very interesting. What a lovely day, don't you think?"

 700-00561885 © Masterfile
700-00561885 © Masterfile

Fortunately, by the time these initial language problems become good and boring, a solution stands ready: the couple can choose to become "fiancé" and "fiancée." Or, to be quaint, "betrothed." With only a little paperwork and clergy or justice of the peace, they can start referring to each other as "husband," "wife," and "married." And then they can tackle the problem of what to call each other privately.

Most longtime couples have private names for each other. Sometimes these names slip out in the presence of others, in times of stress, exhiliration, or PR spin, or after everybody's had a few drinks. My friends Anita and Jim call each other Frank. George W. and Laura - as their daughters announced to the world during the Republican National Convention - call each other Bushie. A dog-loving couple who will be nameless here because I need to remain on speaking terms with them call each other Wooda (that's a phonetic rendering) and Wooba, short for "Wonder Dog" and "Wonder Bitch." My friend Robin calls her husband, whose name is Richard, Lord Voldemort - a.k.a. "He Who Must Not Be Named." That's when she's not calling him Wally (this is a good story, but a long one.)

And my husband and me? Since you asked, we call each other "my pet" or Pet. "Pet, would you turn the music down?" "Yes, Pet." As a, um, pet name, it's minimalist (our aesthetic), it's egalitarian, and it's entertaining - to us, at any rate. Partly for fun and partly to keep straight which of us we're talking about, we have variant names as well. For instance, if we are visiting California or drinking Sonoma Valley wine, Julian (that's his real name) is Petaluma. We have many variants, and the list of them keeps growing - but you get the idea.

700-00556872 © Mark Leibowitz/Masterfile
700-00556872 © Mark Leibowitz/Masterfile

As far as I can tell, people don't wake up one morning, realize they need a pet name for their inamorata(o), and set about choosing one, as if they had a baby to name. And while insight into matters of the heart can often be found in literature, surprisingly few great lovers in great novels have private names for each other. Consider Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. She calls Alexei Vronsky - the man for whom she gave up everything - simply, Alexei. For his part, Vronksy lavishes endearments like "darling" and "my sweet" on his favorite horse, Frou-Frou, but rarely does he call his mistress anything other than Anna.

Mr. Knightley, in Jane Austen's Emma, is a bit more demonstrative. Once the couple are engaged, the words, "Emma, my love," pass his lips. But when he asks her, "And cannot you call me 'George' now?" she replies: "Impossible! I never can call you any thing but 'Mr. Knightley.' I will not promise even to equal the elegant terseness of Mrs. Elton, by calling you Mr. K."

And we, or at least I, cheer Emma on. If she called him "Georgy-porgy" - or whatever - one evening, I wouldn't respect her in the morning. Well, Anna Karenina and Emma don't have any sex scenes either. Pet names, like sex, are usually best left to consenting adults to do with as they will in private.

Pet names are the tip of the iceberg of private languages, and these present couples with yet another language issue: How far to indulge this impulse? Undoubtedly, it runs deep. According to scientists, approximately 40 percent of twins under the age of five or six (and some close-in-age siblings too) have a language that they speak only with each other. An awful lot of couples I know share at least a few words of a private language, including Julian and me. Ask either one of us "Do you have a doppelganger?" and the response you'll get will seem almost as far off-topic as Raymond's response to "Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?" in the original Manchurian Candidate.

But I'm pretty sure that if someone doing a telephone survey asked me whether I used special words - never mind special gestures and intonations - when conversing alone with my husband, I'd say, "Of course not," and hang up. I would be lying, yes, but not without reason. I would be maintaining a human being's inalienable right to privacy. And I would be upholding the honorable tradition of the Samoan teenagers who lied shamelessly to Margaret Mead, probably because they found it shameless of her to be asking about intimate things they did when no one else was around.

Julian and I, I'll admit, have not resolved every difficulty that has arisen in our life as a couple, but I do think by now we've got the basic language problems aced. Thus we are able to communicate with each other more subtly, with more nuance, than we can with anyone else. For instance:

I'm not an early riser, but at six on a recent morning, my dear pet forgot this, as he does surprisingly often, and tried to start a conversation with me.

I said, "I want to go back to sleep, Julian."

And he replied, "Don't you call me that!"



Barbara Wallraff writes language columns for The Atlantic Monthly and King Features Syndicate. Her most recent book is Your Own Words. Bring your own language problems to her.



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