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A term of endearment is a name used to express affection for someone or something. Names or titles with a diminutive suffix, shortened forms of proper names, or seemingly unrelated words like “duck” or “pumpkin” can all qualify as terms of endearment. Without true affection or in the wrong situation, these words can be very insulting.
Many different languages attach various syllables to the ends of both proper and improper nouns to imply littleness and, typically, affection. These are known as diminutive suffixes. For example, -(c)ito/-(c)ita is one type of diminutive suffix in Spanish, -chen or -lein in German, and -etto/-etta in Italian. English often uses the -ie or -y suffix, such as Willie and Johnny instead of William and John.
Proper names are abbreviated as a term of endearment or nickname in many languages. For example, a woman named Elizabeth might be known as Eliza, Liz, or Beth. Sometimes the name gets changed somewhat, as in Bess. Frequently a diminutive suffix is added to the shortened name as well, as in Lizzy and Betsy. Both shortened forms and words with diminutive suffixes are also called hypocorisms.
The possessive pronoun “my” is used at the beginning of many terms of endearment in multiple languages. Examples include “my sweetheart” and “my darling” in English, as well as mon amour and ma chérie in French. Sometimes a term of endearment is simply “my” followed by the type of relationship, such as “my husband” or “my wife.”
Some terms of endearment are obviously derived from words with pleasant connotations, such as “sweetie” or “sugar,” while others are less easily explained. A French term of endearment can include several animals, such as ma caille, meaning “my quail.” Similarly, “pet” and “duckie” are common in certain parts of England.
While close friends and family often greatly enjoy shared terms of endearment, some people are offended if a stranger addresses them by similar terms. Similarly, certain social situations and work relationships prohibit the use of terms of endearment. Although a child may call a neighbor by a friendly nickname, it would be inappropriate for the same child to use that name for his teacher.
On the other hand, some people use a term of endearment that seems insulting to an outsider, even though the speaker and the addressee find it affectionate. One example, common in several Latin American countries, is the word viejito, or “little old man.” Others call their friends or children words such as “pest” or “trouble.”