Terms of Endearment

You can blame Athena Andreadis – aka @AthenaHelivoy – for this unscheduled blog post. Oh what the hell, nearly all my blog posts are unscheduled! 🙂 But for this one, I’d read a tweet of Athena’s where she had said, in response to another conversation: “English is pitifully sparse in endearments. Most tongues I know say “my soul/light/songbird/heart…”

And I have lots of feels on that topic, and now have the excuse to talk about it. The fact that I’ve been working on a novel that contains a strong romantic element has only encouraged me in this regard. Names, vocabulary and language being used to express feelings that are so strong they become well nigh inexpressible…ah yes!

First, where I’m coming from on this: there are two languages that go back to my childhood: English, my mother tongue, and Irish, which is taught to all children in the Republic of Ireland from a young age. These are two very different languages in their philosophy towards endearments. Athena correctly says that English has a paucity of endearments.  Irish, on the other hand, has loads and loads and loads: grá mo chroí, spéirbhean, a mhúirnín, a stór, etc. etc. Love poetry in Irish, though generally miserable as hell, is slightly more successful than English because its rhythms are incantatory and anapaestic. It’s a beautiful, resonant language in poetry.

So does that mean the Irish language is more romantic? Only if you find romance in utter obfuscation and lack of straightforwardness. Irish does not allow me to say I love you. It permits I have a love for you which, if I may sound British for a moment, sounds like Terribly Poor Stuff to me. I can then say I have a great love for you, or I have an overpowering love for you, if I’m particularly smitten with a Gaelic-speaking gentleman. But the bit where I assume agency for my feelings, that bare, unadorned nominative is never reached. Similarly, I cannot say I failed – the literal translation is “it failed on me”. Suddenly the Celtic Tiger crash becomes clear. We once spoke a Peter Pan language, and we haven’t quite shaken it off.

So, that’s Irish. What about English? It is true that we have the opposite problem there. The magnitude of what I must confess to my Anglo-Saxon beloved is considerably greater, hence more risk. Hence, if I may be so bold, the stiff upper lip stereotype! I saw Parade’s End on BBC a few years back and was touched by the scene between the unhappily married, repressed Tietjens and the suffragette Valentine Wannop. There is an understanding between them, but every time he means “love”, he says “respect” (with an appropriately wobbling lower lip Cumberbatch stylee) and then when he can’t quite repress his feelings, he blurts out “Dear – ” and leaves it there and God your heart goes out to him.

In fact I think in English the power is in the repression rather than the expression. In Jane Eyre, Rochester piles on the endearments – fairy, elf, strange unearthly thing, et al (Good job he doesn’t speak any Irish or we’d be here all night!) but aren’t we straight ladies all more likely to catch our breath when he looks meaningfully at Jane and says “Goodnight my – ” and STOPS THERE, yes? And then there’s the whole big deal about switching from last name to first. Names were a big romantic thing then.

I used to think that “love” was an irritatingly vague term and that a language like Greek defined it better. However I have been reliably informed that in spite of having agape, eros, philos and storge, the same romantic misunderstandings happen in Greece as anywhere else! Which makes me think that in spite of what I’ve just written, maybe these spaces between the spaces are universal everywhere, especially when it comes to love. And I do love when the same word means something else in different languages. Cara  means, I believe, “dear” in Italian and is used in affection; in Irish it means “friend” and is used as a salutation on letters from the Revenue Commissioners.

What about you – what terms of endearment do you like?

8 thoughts on “Terms of Endearment

  1. My parents always call me ‘duck’, which is the height of affectionate language where I come from. So, I have a soft spot for that. 🙂 I think there’s power in those linguistic gaps where the thing being expressed is greater than the means of expression, which is why I love all the examples you used. Great post.

  2. Now that I did my own due diligence, I can fulfill my promise to join this conversation! Let me start by saying that this post is clearly by a wordsmith with very sensitive antennae.

    Like you, I’m bilingual in two very different languages. I agree that each language gives slightly different optical angles and tools. My own conclusion is that languages deemed romantic on the basis of sound (French, Italian) are usually spoken by pragmatic cultures, whereas more guttural cousins belong, for good and ill, to romantics.

    Restraint and its powerful effects is distinct from the vocabulary available to express emotion (and I cringed at those passages in Jane Eyre where Rochester waxes, well, goofy; Charlotte Brontë had many talents but a light touch and a sense of humor were not among them).

    It’s also worthwhile mentioning that the vocabulary of love goes beyond the interaction between two potential mating partners — which is relevant to the Hellenic terms you listed: aghápi is the general term for love. Filía used to mean love in Periclean Athens but now means friendship; storghí means affection; éros (érotas in spoken demotic) means passionate love (which can also be used for feeling about a vocation, not just a person). It’s a bit more finely granulated than English which is a fundamentally vague language — which has its own advantages!

    1. Thanks Athena, great comment and more than worth the wait!

      I should say that I am not bilingual and most Irish people aren’t. We’re made learn the language at school and as soon as we can, we make haste in forgetting it because the experience of learning a largely oral language in a written context is generally disagreeable (plus we’ve had generations of having had to learn English to get anywhere in life, so the vociferous and angry rejection of a language that is moribund to dead is a lot to do with generations of cultural baggage, I think.) My contemporaries’ experience of learning Irish has been almost uniformly negative and it’s an issue that provokes a lot of anger. Me personally, I’m glad I know a few words, though it’s been a long time since I’ve used it.

      And that was all utterly by the way and nothing to do with either the post or your comment 🙂

      It was good to hear more about the specific uses in Greek and pardon my spelling! The idea of Eros applying to a vocation as well as falling in love really really really makes sense. I have a passion for what I’m working on; it can be all-encompassing.Furthermore I agree completely when it comes to Rochester’s endearments; the number of times I’ve wanted to say “just stop talking, for God’s sake” is rather large. Somebody I was discussing this with pointed out to me that actually English does have the words, it must have since they were in the original tweet you put up 🙂 but the culture behind the English language doesn’t like to use them, which gets into a whole chicken and egg question of course.

      Thanks for that comment, good food for thought!

      1. Exactly: English does have the words and first-cousin languages use them (mein Schatz). You hear them occasionally in border ballads, like hidden snowdrops. So the decision not to use them is a conscious collective choice by the culture.

  3. How about… Russian? (A Fish Called Wanda). For me, it all depends on how it’s done — and almost anything can be used as an endearment, given the right tone. Down ‘ere in Cornwall, we use names of endearment in daily life; ‘my luvver’, ‘my robin’, and ‘my lovely’ — none of them romantic unless it’s said in THAT kind of voice. We’re fairly big on food items (‘come here, sausage’, or ‘hello, pumpkin’) and, frankly, the right man could call me ‘my turnip’ and get away with it. It’s all about the look in the eye. (Or the words on the page, describing the look in the eye.) The actual words for love, they belong in Valentine’s cards. It’s the sharing of the last pasty that tugs the heart. Or the calling of an answerphone message, just to listen to someone’s voice.

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