6 obsolete endearments
Some terms of affection, like darling, have endured in the English language from the outset, while others have come and gone in less than a century. The language of love thrives on metaphor, but precisely what connotes affection has changed over time. Some endearments employed by love poets in centuries past, like sparling (a type of fish), sound odd to modern ears, whereas other pet names, like heart-root or honeysuckle, remain compelling despite having fallen out of use. The following list highlights some of the more surprising synonyms for sweetheart to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Revive them at your peril: not every beloved is likely to relish being likened to a bat or a pig’s eye.
From honey to sugar, our sweet tooth often finds expression in terms of endearment. But there was once room for spice as well as sweetness in our amorous vocabulary, if we are to judge from Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale: “My faire bryd, my swete cynamome.”
Pronounced like “pig’s knee”, this word actually comes from “pig’s eye”. How such an unflattering concept came to be a term of endearment is still debated, but it has survived from the 14th century through the 20th, though it is now only used as a deliberate archaism. Originally a term for a feminine object of affection, as the centuries passed, it branched out in meaning, first being applied to men and boys, and then acquiring negative connotation as a term of contempt. The latter development makes pigsney one of the rare Janus words that mean its own opposite. Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale is once again the source of one of the choicest examples: “Hir shoes were laced on hir legges hye; She was a prymerole, a piggesnye, For any lord to leggen in his bedde.”
Yet another unlikely animal repurposed as a sweet nothing is the bat. Bats are commonly regarded as nothing more than winged vermin, but in Ben Jonson’s Alchemist (1610), Subtle addresses Dol Common as “My fine Flitter-mouse, My Bird o’ the night,” and receives a kiss rather than a rebuff. Perhaps a Continental flavor accounts for the appeal: flitter-mouse is modelled on the German Fledermaus.
How tastes change. We might call someone honey bun or sugar pie today, but somehow, comparison to a piece of bread soaked in honey is less romantic. If that weren’t bad enough, the same 1513 poem by Scottish poet William Dunbar in which this endearment is attested also refers to the object of affection as his powsowdie, or posset, a drink made from hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or other liquor, with sugar and spices: “My hwny soppis, my sweit possodie.” It’s hard to say which is less appealing.
To a contemporary English-speaker, this registers more as an insult than a compliment, since ding-dong is a contemptuous term for a fool in US English. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, both ding-dong and ding-ding could be used as expressions of endearment. It seems quite a stretch to compare one’s beloved to the sound of a bell, but during the 1950s, members of the Rat Pack used to use the term ring-a-ding to describe a particularly wonderful example of anything, including womanhood. Maybe ding-ding is ready for a retro-chic comeback.
As early as the 15th century, turtle was used not only as a term of endearment but also in the sense “a lover”. The turtle of this romantic metaphor is not the shelled reptile, but rather the turtle dove, a bird with a reputation for conjugal affection and loyalty. Thus in a letter of 1717, Lady M. W. Montagu described “Several Couple of true Turtles…saying soft things to one another.” We should all be so lucky as to have a turtle to call our own.