How do you say 'darling' in your language? The British Council's Ellie Buchdahl looks at the many variations of the word in British English in the run-up to Valentine's Day on 14 February.
English is the rag rug of languages. It is not elaborate, it is not tidy, its grammar twists and turns and ties itself in knots, and yet it is crammed with colourful offcuts of every other language – and this is exactly what makes it both exceptionally beautiful and thoroughly practical.
Take, for example, the word ‘darling’ – or rather, the words in the plural.
According to the University of Glasgow’s Historical Thesaurus, which went online for the first time a month ago, there are 103 ‘darlings’ in the English language, ranging from ‘bagpudding’ to ‘heart-root’ to the delectable ‘pomewater of my eye’. (See more synonyms for 'darling' at thesaurus.com)
Of course, in the multicultural hubbub that is the UK, this list is considerably longer, as people from faiths and backgrounds across the world toss the term of endearment around their day-to-day British lives.
Each ‘darling’ is a window into the type of person the speaker is, the part of the UK they live in and their cultural background – and, of course, where they are at in the relationship with the ‘darling’ they are addressing.
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at all the ins and outs of loves and darlings – the British English way.
Sweetie, love, hun, darl
In parts of the UK, epithets such as ‘love’, ‘chuck’ and ‘duck’ are handed out liberally to everyone you meet, from best friends to bus drivers.
Likewise, ‘sweetie’ and ‘hun’ are almost ubiquitous among some southern speakers of English (stereotypically those from upper-middle-class backgrounds), while ‘hen’ is used just as often as a friendly word for ‘darling’ as it is for a feathered animal one might find in a coop.
A caveat: ‘Love’, ‘sweetie’ and the like are not regarded as traditionally ‘masculine’ – and while an adult male might call a child or a woman ‘love’, more ‘blokey’ terms are preferred.
Naturally, English has a whole host of terms for this too – pal, mate, chum, cocky, bro, dude…
A little bit more than friendly darlings
N/A (not even ‘darling’)
What happens when epiphany strikes and that person who was once your darling ‘pal’ suddenly appears in a whole new light? Oh, gosh. Now things are getting awkward.
In English – especially UK English – there are many ways to explain to other people that you’ve developed ‘a bit of a crush’: to fancy someone; to kind of like someone; to like someone in that way…
None of these terms should ever be directed to the object of your affection. Even if you called them ‘darling’ before, everything now becomes extremely complicated.
When (or if) you do reach the point of pouring forth your undying love, you must revert to strings of conditionals and subjunctives. ‘So…
‘I think… I might possibly have started… maybe we should… do you think… just like… anyway… so?’
Random stranger darlings
Beautiful, handsome, sexy…
Exclusively referring to someone’s appearance or physique is extremely forward and uncouth, and as such, this expression of ‘love’ (if you can call it that) should be reserved for the realms of chat-up lines, dingy clubs (where words are drowned out by music) and online dating forums (where everyone just looks at the pictures anyway).
When it comes to creative chat-up lines, English can be a useful resource too. Sleaze only becomes more sleazy with a choice pun, and English is designed for wordplay: ‘Do you have any raisins? How about a date then?’
‘Are you Jamaican? Because Jer-makin’ me crazy!’
Baby, babes, lover, honey, snookums, lamb chop, cutie-pie, sweetiekins
The words teenagers use for the object of their affections are best not dwelt upon too long, as they are without exception sugary to the point of metaphorical tooth decay – see the examples above.
All that popcorn patter is fine for the backseat of the cinema, but things become considerably more down to earth once we reach…
Spouses and long-term relationship darlings
After a few decades and several children, 103 words can seem far too many. ‘Dear’ is the only real addition to the standard ‘darling’ that most couples will need, with perhaps a ‘love’ and a standard ‘darling’ thrown in here and there.
Come the 60-year anniversary, many British couples are content with a few grunts over the breakfast tea and toast.
Lamb, pumpkin, sweet pea
However, while British English speakers may lose interest in creative terms for each other when age sets in, they make up for this in words for their children.
Listen out for ‘my lamb’ in the south of the UK; ‘chuck’ in the north; ‘bairnie’ in Scotland (‘bairn’ being the Scots word for ‘child’); and ‘mhuirnín’ or ‘stóirin' in Ireland.
‘My cabbage’… ‘my cinnamon’… even ‘poopie’…
Who will be your darling this Valentine’s Day?
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