Science explains why people use pet names for their partners

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Grace Allen
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Hayley Powers

Scientific research has shed light on why we feel the need to call our partners cutesy nicknames.

Despite many of us not thinking of ourselves as ‘pet name’ people (and rolling our eyes when we hear others addressing each other as ‘Babe’, ‘Boo’, ‘Ducky’, ‘Shnookums’ and so on), once in a committed relationship using affectionate nicknames becomes weirdly instinctive.

Now there’s a scientific explanation for why this is and, essentially, it comes down to baby talk.

Florida State University neuroanthropologist Professor Dean Falk told Broadly: “Baby talk is used really extensively, including cross-culturally, by mothers around the world”, going on to say, “it exists for language acquisition in infants, and it also expresses love and facilitates bonding between the mother and the infant”.

She suggests that baby talk is loved by infants, and especially when it comes from the mother. Using similar language as an adult is a way of feeling more connected to our partner, while also nostalgically harking back to that time when we were ‘babied’ ourselves.

There may be other explanations, too. Frank Nuessel of the University of Louisville argues that adopting nicknames is a way of expressing ourselves. As we get older and our conventional adult exchanges become ever more mundane, baby talk is like a form of play: “It allows both people a certain freedom from the normal constraints of adult roles.”

Psychotherapist Dr. Nan Wise says: “There are seven basic emotional systems that all animals have—it’s how we’ve been evolutionarily wired”.

She goes on: “When we’re young, all animals learn by play. These social connections are critical for wellbeing. So using baby talk to each other is a way of facilitating these innate bonding systems of play, and care”.

All good reasons not to feel quite so embarrassed about calling your significant other ‘Muffin’, ‘Pumpkin’ or (supposedly most-loathed by women everywhere), ‘Babe’. 

Images: Haley Powers