Babe. Honey. Sweetie. Pet names: to some they are an endearing way for lovers to signal intimacy, to others – like George Costanza – they are insanely annoying. But why do we use the particular pet names that we do? New York Magazine‘s Jen Doll thinks it’s because a couple – especially a married couple – might just want to keep a spirit of lightness about their relationship. “Even when folks are married,” she writes, “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 why has babe become the most commonly used romantic nickname? Doll notes its use as early as the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that the word began to take hold in the culture, when it appeared in lyrics by Rodgers and Hart. Songs have always been a handy way to ensure a word’s popularity. “We can thank American English for innovating this particular strand,” says lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin of Oxford University Press. “Baby, babe, and bae are all commonly heard in pop music, which is such an effective way of getting usages pushed out.” And if we weren’t calling each other babe, what other words could we use? How about heartikin, flitter-mouse, or ding-ding? Would Britney Spears have had a big hit with a song called “Hit Me Honeysop, One More Time”?