I Got You, Sweetikin: Why We Call Each Other Babe

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Photo: George Wilkes Archive/Getty Images

Each week on It's Complicated, we'll be helping ourselves improve our couplings by looking into the linguistics of romance.

The other weekend, I was having dinner with two friends who are married, and the topic of what we call our significant others came up. "We always just say 'babe,'" offered the wife, and then asked her husband to order us some vegetarian Chinese food. "Babe, can you get extra Ponzu sauce with that?" "No problem, babe," he responded.

Even when folks are married, words like husband and wife don't always roll off the tongue; they can sound a tad too "establishment" or even antiquated. Nicknames like babe or baby or even bae, by contrast, feel somehow light and freewheeling and modern. But there's more to them than that. In May, Alice Robb wrote for The New Republic about the predilection romantic partners have for calling each other baby, despite that being a little bit creepy when you think about it. Guess what? It's totally healthy. “Pet names are a kind of cue to intimacy," say the experts. (Note: If you're dating someone you call Mr. or Ms., you may not be long for that relationship; though if you want to work for the New York Times, you're on the right track.) 

Babe and baby as used to describe a romantic partner (rather than a small child or immature person; those usages began in the 1400s and 1500s) can be traced to usage that began in the 19th and 20th centuries in America. Initially, the words were simply used as a form of address (men were calling each other baby in 1835, sans any romantic connotations; in the 1996 movie Swingers, Vince Vaughn's character employs the word for just about everybody). The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first romantic use of babe as 1911, exampled by the Rodgers and Hart lyrics, "Oh, ma babe, waltz with me, kid. Gee, you've got me off ma lid." In 1684, there's an isolated use of baby by Aphra Behn: "Philander, who is not able to support the thought that any thing should afflict his lovely Baby, takes care from hour to hour to satisfie her tender doubting heart," but the word doesn't pop up again as a romantic descriptor until the 1860s: "Dear, dear, dear Baby, how often, how incessantly I think of you," writes General H. M. Naglee. Baby is also used around that time to refer to "attractive young women," and babe follows in that role in 1915, though it takes until 1973 for babe to apply to a man: "He's a real babe ... Mr. America!"

Before those two little b-words, though, came handfuls of nicknames you might apply to your lover, including cinnamon (1405), honeysop (about 1513), heartikin (1530), ding-ding (1564), pug (1580), sweetikin (1596), duck (1600), sucket (1605), flitter-mouse (1612), nug (1699), treat (1825), hon (1906), sugar (1930), and lamb-chop (1962). According to Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, "Really common endearments involved sweetness, sugar, and animals and birds. This baby concept is not something that has a long history. We can thank American English for innovating this particular strand. Baby, babe, and bae are all commonly heard in pop music, which is such an effective way of getting usages pushed out." Similarly, she reflects, plenty of ideas about love that we hold today — "those clichés that became part of pop culture" — were propagated by the Beatles.

An interesting twist, though, is that while my friends have two toddlers, they'd probably never call them babe. "The first meaning of baby remains baby, or infant, while babe in modern years is something you'd never call a child, except for Jesus at Christmastime," Connor Martin duly notes. And then there's bae, which some say is an acronym for "Before Anyone Else," though according to the linguists at the OED, who this year included it on the short list for Word of the Year, that's probably not true. "It’s an alternate pronunciation of baby or babe, which started out in African-American usage but has gone global, expanding into more demographics, and like any language change, generating some backlash," says Connor Martin. 

People are always changing words (and their meanings!) as we go. Luckily, speakers of English are fairly adept at divorcing a word from a previous historical meaning. Connor Martin gives the example of desktop, which we generally understand as referring to computers and not the tops of desks, depending on the context. "The metaphor is there at the beginning, but it isn’t always in the mind of speakers," she says. Which is why it's perfectly okay, even quite nice, for you to call your loved one baby, babe, or even pug or lamb-chop. Just, you know, call them.