Terms of Endearment — the egg-shell path

Two separate events in a week — both around terms of endearment — but with completely opposite reactions, left me amused. I am easily affectionate towards people and use my verbal repertoire to communicate those, but the two events made me think how the same word can be perceived entirely differently by two people.

It is nothing serious, indeed, I was completely amused by how sometimes people’s entire identities (Egos?) are tied to the choice of words used towards them. Equally, some other people can absolutely make no sense whatsoever of what these terms are supposed to communicate to them. Either way, I think a not-so-Definitive Guide on Terms of Endearment is due. Here’s my take on it.

There will be people who agree with and object to this calibration. Fair warning: A feminist lady you consider a good friend might slap you across the face if you called her “Honey”! :P YMMV.

Without making this into a serious socio-cultural reflection or essay, I am presenting you my light-hearted (but sincere) understanding of such terms.

Why Bother, when there is a name!?

For the truly pedantic (or clueless! ;) ), let’s start with the very reason for such terms to exist in the first place. The purpose of terms of endearment is simple: they communicate warmth, fondness, affection, love and passion. Those five are, by the way, the increasing degrees of liking that we experience towards another person. If calling a person by their first name indicates familiarity in Western socieities, and saying, “Mr. “ or “Miss so and so” is formal, likewise, the words of affection that are used have degrees of familiarity and hence, appropriate places of use.


  • Typically, denotes friendliness and can extend to casual acquaintances. With someone who is more than a stranger, but less than a friend.
  • Dude, Buddy, Bud, Girl (‘Gurl’), Chap, Boss, Chappie
  • I hear the younger generation using ‘bro’, ‘brah’ — and no, it’s not just the boys. It is also girls calling other girls that! :D Go figure!
  • To introduce a little hint of flattery, try these: Lady, Good fellow
  • Where the relationship is with an older person, and one wishes to convey warm respect it would be, “Sir”, “Ma’am” etc. which on paper sound formal, but in real, sound warmly respectful.
  • Some unusual, but charming forms are:
  • Senor, Senorita, (Indian: Dost, Bhai, Behena)


  • Typically, denotes friendship-level warmth. There is no romantic attraction here.
  • Babe, Dear, Sunshine, Handsome, Beautiful (be careful with this) or more elaborate forms such as “Breath of fresh air”, “Twinkly eyes”, “Twinkle toes”, “Dimple cheeks” etc.
  • Some that can be seen equally as flattering or sarcastic (and run a risk) are: Genius, Stranger, Alien, Geek, Nerd, Hunk, Princess, Diva, Prince etc.
  • If the person you are speaking to isn’t very strict about verbal boundaries, then the following will work very well too. Note that some of these are more easily passed off by a burger flipping middle aged person in a fast-food joint in NY City than say, someone at your workplace. Use caution. Such are: Honey, Dear
  • With older people, in many non-American cultures, calling directly by name isn’t acceptable. Therefore, younger people are expected to call them Auntie Sally, Uncle Jones etc. Of course, if they are actually your family members, it goes without saying that the titles apply. But in Asia, they’d apply to anyone who is older than you. Therefore, you’d march up to a shop and say, “Mani uncle, how much is a bag of rice?” or “Aunty Lu, could you give me strawberry bubble ice-tea, please?”.
  • Indian: Yaar, Bhidu (colloq.); with respect: Mohatarma (akin to ‘lady’)


  • This is grey territory now. Could be a lot of fondness, or may be on the verge of a romantic attraction that is yet unwilling to come out and say so.
  • Diminutives are common in this realm. The other person’s name may be shortened in common or creative ways (Chuck for Charles, Liz for Elizabeth etc. are common. Using only initials is another way this can work without controversy. Any other diminutive forms would depend on the specific two people and their cultures. Eddie might become Ed, Sunny might become Sun or even Sunshine. In India, Anjana would become Anju readily. Neelkanth would be trimmed to Neelu. Lakshmi could become fancily enough, “Lux”!)
  • Common words that could be used with peers or those that are younger, and especially acceptable with children are:
  • Dear, Darlin’ , Darling, Sweetness, Dearie, Hun, Hon, Babe, Treasure, Ami (mon ami), Princess, Knight-in-shining-armour, Apple of my eye, my lady, milady,
  • That said, sarcasm might spill from a woman who raises an eyebrow and elaborately drawls, “Well? Dahhhhlin…” ;)
  • Slightly more controversial and requiring care, but heard frequently especially in North America are:
  • Sweetheart, Honey, Luv, Pet, Sugar, Sweetie pie, Doll, sweet pea, (or any other sweet-dish of your choice! ;) )
  • Again, more words that need care, especially if they are borrowed from non-English languages and hence, have confused cultural implications:
  • Cher, Cherie, Or the “my ___” combinations such as: My dear, my love, my good man, my lady
  • Indian: nightingale, gazelle, almond eyes, shining beacon of the family, family jewel, and such other words in the respective Indian language. Or the more commonly used: kaanha, kanna, kannamma, kanhaiya, radha. Among friends: mitra, sahodara, bhai, behena, anna etc.
  • Or the specific word in the respective Indian language for ‘gold’, ‘silver’, ‘jewel’, ‘silk; etc. — shona, resham, thangam, pattu etc.


  • No holds barred here, I guess. The options are endless. (Although, I still feel that English does not have some of the helpful constructs that other languages have, to convert any noun to a handy diminutive on the fly. :\)
  • Baby, cuddles, precious, and of course, if applicable: wife, husband, hubby, wifey, better half
  • Feel free with: Sweetheart, Honey, Luv, Pet, Sugar, Sweetie pie, Doll, sweet pea, (or any other sweet-dish of your choice! ;) )
  • So here we have the “my ___” versions.
  • My love, my dear, my sweetheart, my dream girl, my dream guy, my baby, my life, my princess, my prince, my precious, my world, or the very endearing and lasting classics: my lovely wife or my good man ❤
  • Indian (actually, Urdu) has an exquisite set of words that indicates lasting companionship, using the prefix ‘hum’ meaning, forever. Therefore: humsafar: eternal companion traveller, humnava: one whose thought matches yours, humdard: who feels your pain along with you, humraaz: one who knows your secrets
  • A word on the Indian options. They’re endless, but only a few are in vogue.
  • Love: mehboob, pyaar, Sweetheart: sanam, Prince: raja, Precious: shona, sona, Moonbeam: chaandni, Moon: chaand, My life: “jaan”, “jaaneman” etc. or their even more tender or playful versions of “jaana”, “jaanu”
  • Or the almost comical “Dabboo ki maa” and “Dabboo ke papa”!! (calling each other as the father/mother of Dabboo, their son!)


  • This is reserved for those who have shared intimate experiences that go beyond ordinary love
  • Words include: fantasy, my fantasy, love of my life, my lover, mon amor
  • Indian: The land of Kamasutra has some pretty exotic jewels in this area. Most such terms have now been relegated to the realms of poetry. But, I’ll give one example of a term that is still sometimes used. There exists a very intimate ornament: “mekala”. This particular term of endearment is not to be casually thrown around as it refers to a chain loosely worn by a woman around her waist. Calling someone mekala would immediately call upon intimate visuals of letting said chain slip.

A quick word on the use of hearts in social media. All those colours and forms of hearts are hard to make sense of, basically because there is no common collective understanding of them. Here’s the thumb rule: A red heart of any size/form is best left for woman-woman communication and with those you consider ‘in love’ (and they know it!). Pink hearts are tricky territory. The ones that have an arrow in them are just red hearts in disguise! ;) I’d be cautious with any heart that has a star or a bow or a teddy bear on it. Save those for the ‘love’. With other pinks, use, with caution. Any other colour heart is reasonably safe among friends. Black heart? Calling someone a cheat? :|

A final word on the Indian culture’s unique way of expressing love. Although the Indian languages collectively might have (arguably) the most exotic and varied collection of endearment phrases, there is a curious dichotomy here. When the relationship of attachment is formalized between two people, the words of affection are no longer said, at least in public. The couple simply stops calling each other anything at all, resorting to, “Listen…”, “Suniye…”, “Sun rahe ho?”, “Achcha… ek baat thi.” (well, there is something I need to say), “Enna” (meaningless word) or just calling them by the relationship itself: “Chetaa”, “Athan” etc.

I wonder how it must feel to be amorously called, “Chaand ka tukda” (a piece of the moon!) while being wooed, only to be unceremoniously reduced to “listen…” afterwards, once married? :)

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