Why Do Couples Use Pet Names? The Secret Language Of Relationship-Speak, Explained

Years ago, a boyfriend and I were basically insufferable. It wasn't because of PDA  — it was because we had developed a whole secret language of words, pet names, and phrases over our weirdo long-term relationship. “Money” was “monkey,” “playful tickling” was “finkling,” and my hair specifically was “minksy cotton.” Listen, I’m not saying any of it made any sense, but it came up frequently between us. And as it turns out, we weren’t the only freaks.

It's called “relationship-speak” — and it's a very real phenomenon. It’s similar, in some ways, to cryptophasia, aka twin-speak (although, of course, with relationships, the language is born of shared experiences outside the womb, so no actual biological likeness can be to blame). And like a lot of weird human things, relationship-speak can mostly be blamed on — and explained by — psychology.

“Keep in mind, a relationship is an exchange of care,” relationship expert Dr. Wendy Walsh tells Bustle. “And if it is an emotionally intimate relationship, then people may reveal what some may call the most infantile parts of their personalities to each other. [A relationship can be] a very sweet, childlike, intimate, almost infantile type of place.”

"[relationships are] the most intimate place, where we are comfortably allowed to be the sweet baby that's inside of all of us,” Dr. Walsh says. “That's one of the reasons couples call each other ‘baby,’ by the way.”

A commonality in many relationship-speak languages is the use of diminutives, aka the truncating of words, Dr. Walsh says; for example, shortening “honey” to “hon.” Remember how it was socially acceptable to refer to “water” as “wa-wa” as a child? It’s kinda like that. Not only does it clip the word, it babies it down into a super easy-to-pronounce annunciation. (One married couple I know will tell each other they’re hungry by saying “hung.” Conversely, not hungry is communicated by “nung.”)

“In the relationship, when you get to that level of intimacy, trust, and vulnerability — instead of moving towards language, you're actually moving away from language,” Dr. Walsh says. “Like, I know a man who used to say ‘El you’ [to his partner]. Like, ‘Love you.’ And she would say, ‘Me you.’ So, ‘el you; me you’ was their little thing, every time.”

That begins to explain why the whole baby-talk thing that happens between couples. Although perhaps seen initially as questionable-to-disturbing, it turns out there’s some psychological reasoning behind the up-turned octaves and changes in speech. 

“When we expose the most infantile parts of our personality — (we don't do that in the office) — it's the most intimate place, where we are comfortably allowed to be the sweet baby that's inside of all of us,” Dr. Walsh says. “[That's] one of the reasons couples call each other ‘baby,’ by the way.”

Interestingly, studies show college roommates also have a habit of adjusting their cadence and inflections to match each other’s — it’s called phonetic convergence. But romantic relationships tend to take things to the next level.

Sex counselor Dr. Ian Kerner also tells Bustle that the creation of these unique vocabularies is a reflection of our own human needs to represent our distinct feelings of attachment to our partners. 

“When we rely on the common vocabulary, it feels just that — common,” Kerner says. “I think [then] you search for the private, secret vocabulary that exists just between us and our partner ... It's wonderful when our words can really correlate and synch up with our feelings.”

I did some very scientific polling (I BCC’d about 100 of my friends across the globe) for examples of this language phenom. 

In asking friends about their secret language, the bulk of their responses involved words or phrases dealing with cuddling, relaxing together, and other kinds of physical touch. In my original email, I presented the term “pancaking,” a verb I use with a current partner to describe the act of laying on top of each other completely motionless. My friend Muriel wrote back immediately, “Oh! We call that ‘sashimi.’” Friends Alina and Avi would regularly “shrell,” something she describes to me as “to shred and chell (which means like chilling to the greatest extent).”

Interestingly, studies show college roommates also have a habit of adjusting their cadence and inflections to match each other’s — it’s called phonetic convergence. But romantic relationships tend to take things to the next level.

“The physical intimacy actually changes your neurochemistry,” Dr. Walsh says. “I was reading a study recently that shows couples who hug for at least 20 seconds — that's when the big dopamine rush comes. Well even our closest girlfriend, we don't [usually] hang on to her for 20 seconds. Physical intimacy [and] touch affects our neurochemistry.” 

With a newly rewired brain, the groundwork is laid for a deeper connection (and a secret language) within the couple.

While it might be kind of embarrassing taken out in public, Dr. Walsh says baby talk is totally normal, even healthy. It’s essentially “adopting another persona and maybe that's the only persona in which [a person] feels safe expressing those true, intimate needs.” 

“It speaks to the intimacy and vulnerability and tenderness,” Dr. Kerner adds. “There are words you generally don't want other people hearing you use ... It really does speak to your ability to expose your cheesy, nerdy, quirky side to your partner. And that revelation, in itself, is intimate and connecting.” 

Overall, it seems developing a unique couple-speak in your partnership facilitates a greater intimacy — so go for it, honey boo-boo.

“That's what a relationship is — parenting each other,” Dr. Walsh says. “Grown women, in the arms of someone they love, become little girls. Grown men become little boys — or they should be allowed to.”

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Images: cortomaltes/Flickr; Giphy (6)

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