Wednesday, September 23, 2009

International Pet Names

I've always loved to learn new languages because they show so much about the people who speak it and their culture. Somebody once told me there are several words for "sand" in the languages of people who live in the desert. Equally, the choice of words for "ice" seems to be huge among the languages spoken in the Arctic, and in Asia, there's a bigger variety for "rice" than anywhere else. In Germany, we have an extensive variation for . . . (can you guess?) . . . rain. Nieselregen (very fine rain), Wolkenbruch (literally translates as broken cloud and signifies a downpour), Landregen (ordinary rain, rather persistent), Dauerregen (rain that never stops), the expression "es giesst in Stroemen" (it rains in sheets), Schauer (if you translate it as shower, you get the meaning - short and strong), Sommerregen (summer rain), Schneeregen (sleet) . . . in general, the English language has more words than German, particularly when it comes to verbs, but in rain, we can hold our own!

Now why do I talk about rain? I didn't want to talk about weather at all, but about sweet names in my blog today. Because I realized that the funniest words you can learn in another language are pet names . . . names of endearment . . . I mean the names you give to your lovers and and your children, something very important for romance writers!

In American English, everybody knows due to Hollywood movies, you can safely start with "honey" or "sugar". I once started to call my daughter "sugar" in German, which is the word "Zucker". Not only does it sound too harsh, but everybody stared at me and thought I was trying to be too smart. So I stopped doing that and now call her rabbit, which is perfectly acceptable in German, not only for kids but also very popular for couples. A normal phrase in a German household could be "Rabbit, have you seen my glasses?" However, the standard German endearment of a man to a woman is "mouse", made stronger by "Mäuschen", little mouse. Try that on an American woman!

In return, the standard German pet name of a woman for a man is "bear". I assure you it doesn't sound strange - you can even buy postcards, pre-designed, from "mouse" to "bear". I don't know what an American woman would do if you addressed her as "mouse", but if a man really wants to insult a German woman, he should start calling her "baby" - she'll think he's the most chauvinistic male on earth. I admit I still balk whenever I read it in an American romance.

The French have their own funny pet names. A mother often calls her child "mon chou", which can be translated into two things . . . a "chou" is either a cream bag or a cabbage. Picture a mother tenderly pulling her daughter's pigtails and saying "yes, my cabbage".

But if you look at certain German variations, you come up with even stranger things. "Min soeten schietbüddel", for example, is Plattdeutsch, an old German language spoken in the North of Germany. I'm not sure if I wrote it correctly, but that's what it sounds like. It's used from a parent to a child and means "my sweet shit-bag". Now, can you top that?


I.J. Parnham said...

Thanks for that fun item. I can see the British reputation for always talking about the weather isn't deserved as we have only one word for rain - rain. Although the brilliant Scottish word dreich is becoming more widely used to describe those miserable days when the weather closes in and it feels like you're living in a cardboard box.

British Pet names are the same with baby and sweet being one of those mistakes you only make once. It's quite common for Brits to give their pets pet names such as sweetie with their better half's being, well, perhaps unrepeatable!

Carol Hutchens said...

Can't think of pet names...laughing too hard. Thanks for the fun.

Zelda Benjamin said...

Good thing I don't live in Germany. I use sweetie a lot
when I'm talking to kids. Imagine their parents reaction if I used the German translation.

Kathye Quick said...

I took German for three years. Not only is it not a romance language, but speaking it makes you sound like an attacking Saxon.

I can't imagine writing a romance in such a hard-sounding language and still having it appear tender and romantic.

I guess you have to be there.

Beate Boeker said...

Ian, what about poppet? Is that one still used in Britain for a sweet kid? I still remember the way the (elderly) Scottish call everybody "dearie" from the time when I studied in Edinburgh. I really liked it! Have never heard dreich - sounds like it fits!

Kathye, don't worry, we do have our romance novels even in German. But it's true they're different from the US style.

Thank you all for your comments!

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Loved your article, Beate. Especially the last translation of a pet name. When on my teacher exchange program in Germany, I thought I was saying, "Good Night." But when all the German teachers were able to contain their laughter, boy was my face red when they told me I had actually said, "Get naked."

Sandy Cody said...

What a hoot! Thanks for the laugh!

Edna said...

That really is a fun blog I can't speak anything but Southern, that is what I saw when I have to call some company and they are located out of the USA, I can't understand them and they can't understand me. I talk so fast and have that really southern accent as I have live in SC all my life,


Joani Ascher said...

Thanks, Beate, for reminding me of my comparative linquistics class. Reading about the many German words for rain and the different choices of pet names was fun and interesting and I want to know more. And by the way, "Sweetie" is a favorite pet name of mine for children, and I just hate to be called "Dear."

Elisabeth Rose said...

That was a great post Beate!

People use 'poppet' for a little child here and 'sweetie'. 'Love' is used too mostly within families but out in the country areas older people might use it to strangers in a shop or cafe or something.
eg "G'day love, what can I get you?"

Beate Boeker said...

Loretta, that anecdote was hilarious. Thank you for sharing it!
Lis, I still remember almost fainting on the dot, when I boarded a bus in England at the age of sixteen (my first time abroad without my parents!) and the bus driver said "luv" to me. That's not gonna happen in Germany - ever - though it would improve our system!
Joani, why do you hate being called dear? Do you think it conveys a certain hidden meaning?

I.J. Parnham said...

I've never heard anyone say poppet, but that's not to say it's not used. Little Darlings is the most common term I hear used to describe children, although it's hard to convey the look of total despair and frustration on the faces of the parents while saying it.

Luv and Dear do annoy people, even if it is well meaning. Where I grew up in the Midlands of England the usual friendly term said to strangers is 'me duck'. I have no idea why!

Elisabeth Rose said...

An English woman I knew,( a singer), called everyone "Dahling".
Didn't they ban the use of "darling " backstage at Covent Garden or somewhere a few years ago? Can't remember exactly but it was because it was supposed to be offensive.

mulligangirl said...

Beate, thanks for the hilarious read! I’m reminded of a strange endearment I’ve heard from more than a few moms, which I can only assume is a variation of baby: Bubba. I actually like the 'little cabbage' endearment. It reminds me of a cabbage patch baby, and weren't they sweet back in they day?

Beate Boeker said...

"Me duck" sounds great. Thanks for the warning, Ian. Now I'm prepared and if anybody should ever address me like that, I won't look down at my feet to check if I have waddled into the room! I'll try addressing someone as "meine Ente" (that's the German translation) the next time someone is giving me a hard time. We'll see what will happen!
It sounds pretty drastic to ban the use of darling, Lis, but then, it may have developed a different meaning backstage in Covent Garden - - words are so fickle!

Beate Boeker said...

Edna, forgot to say that I can well imagine how difficult it was for you. It's the same in German - some local dialects are impossible to understand even for another German who's not from the same area.

Jane Myers Perrine said...

What a wonderful blog! Thank you. My husband who grew up in Kentucky startled me many years ago when he called the bank tell in Western Kansas, "Honey." I told him that was rude and too familiar. He said, "Not in Kentucky."

Tessa McDermid said...

Thanks, Beate, for such a fun read! I taught kindergarten for years and often relied on "Sweetie" or "Sweetheart" when a name left me. And after many years of teaching, names would leave me!

My husband and I both took French in high school (opposite coasts of the US) and would teasingly call each other 'little cabbage.' Sometimes we'd even use the French words.

I'm not quite in the south now, near the edge, but a common expression from clerks is "Hon." Said sweetly but for some reason, always gets my hackles up a bit. I'm learning to adapt!

Beate Boeker said...

... loved all your comments! I had no idea that "hon" is used by clerks, but I really like it because I don't like the impersonal way people do business here. Isn't it funny how different we react to the very same words only because of different backgrounds? Plenty of food for misunderstandings in our next novels!

Carolyn said...

What a fun blog, Beate. Thanks for the laughter.

Anonymous said...


I am from America. Though it is often used, I HATE the being called "babe" or "baby." BLECH.

Some other popular ones, that don't bug me personally, are honey, hun, and sweetie.

My favorite term of endearment for children that we say is "pumpkin."

My friends and I call each other "dears"

I like being called "love" by people who are older than me. I remember when I lived in England, my friend's mom would call us "love" if she liked us but couldn't remember our name (my buddy had a LOT of friends). I thought it was sweet.