If a man living in St. Petersburg, Russia, is in love with a woman named Anna, very often he will not call her Anna. Instead, choosing from a multitude of variations in Russian grammar, he might call her Annechka, Anya, Anyusha, Annenka, or 50 other possibilities. This beautiful richness—which makes English readers of Russian novels tear their hair out—also makes the Russian language a multihued cornucopia for affection.
Russian is dense with possibilities for forming so-called diminutives (a rare example in English is horse to horsy), which also carry connotations of affection, perhaps because the idea of “smallness” connotes children, and therefore affection.
Do we need this kind of language, with terms of affection? The commonality of the practice seems to say yes. We exist in the isolated physical worlds of our bodies, and in symbolic ways we try to bridge that terrifying metaphysical loneliness. As one of the most quintessential human activities, language would naturally be a way to hold out a symbolic hand, to say you are special to me, so I use special language with you.
There are various methods for creating such words, including:
(1) references to physical sweetness, a very interesting sort of metaphor when we think about it—honey, sweetheart, sugar
(2) diminutives, which depend on grammar in a language—baby (not exactly a diminutive, but along those lines), sweetie (a combination of sweet + diminutive) carita (“little face” in Spanish)
(3) derivatives of the word “love”—liebchen (German), habibi (Arabic)
(4) references to value/expensiveness—dear, cherie (French), darling (derived from “dear” + diminutive -ling)
Like all language, these words can be used in various ways. When my waitress in south Jersey says, “What do you need, honey?” I don’t think she’s really being affectionate. Normally, though, when one adult uses one of these words to another, it is a symbolic way of saying there is an emotional closeness between us, though of course the words can be said falsely on a Friday night at the bar.
I have heard that there are people who truly do not like such terms. I suppose I should respect that, though I cannot conceive of such a mental state. Sometimes an objection to terms of affection honestly means “I don’t feel close to you—don’t talk to me like that”. But a person who does not like any of these words, ever, I think must be suffering from an incapacity of language.
And that, darling, is what I think.