Michael Jackson’s posthumous album, Xscape, has vaulted up the charts even with prominent fans like Quincy Jones blasting Sony for cashing in on Jackson’s legacy and most listeners balking at the Michael Jackson hologram that’s featured in Xscape’s PR strategy. One aspect of the album that’s not generating controversy, though, is the lyrics. And, for the most part, they’re pretty banal—none more so than Jackson’s opening line: “Baby, love never felt so good.” But perhaps this shouldn’t seem so unremarkable. We’ve become accustomed to hearing adults use “baby” as a romantic term of endearment—but can we really ignore the fact that the primary meaning of “baby” is “small human child?”
“Certainly the term ‘baby’ is infantilizing,” said Logan Levkoff, the author of several books on sex and relationships. “A ‘baby’ is an actual thing—there’s an image of something.”
It may be creepy, but we’ve been doing it for a long a time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was in the seventeenth century that “baby” was first used as a romantic term of endearment. In Aphra Behn’s 1694 novel, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, Philander, the male hero, declares himself “not able to support the thought that any thing should afflict his lovely Baby.” (In spite of the title— and as fitting as it would be if “baby” were coined in an incestuous context—the “sister” in question is a relation by marriage.) And it isn't just English-speakers who call each other "baby"; many languages have similar terms, from the French bébé to the Chinese baobei.
There may be evolutionary reasons that men infantilize female partners or even seek out women who subconsciously remind them of babies. In the mid-twentieth century, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed that babies’ cuteness is an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation without which they wouldn’t survive; adults need some sort of incentive to provide them with constant care, and Lorenz thought that motive was admiring their cuteness. He believed men carry this preference into adulthood by looking for womenwhoretain elements of babyish “cuteness.”
But men’s possible impulse toward infantilization can’t explain the whole story. For one thing, though “baby” began its career as a term of affection for women— the OED’s first five entries refer to a female—today, it’s applied just as often to men. “I see just as many women calling men baby as men calling women baby,” confirmed Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and author of best-sellers She Comes First and He Comes Next.
Calling your partner “baby” may be weird, but relationship counselors tend to think using pet names is generally healthy; they help couples create a private world. “When affection is strong, using a proper name seems almost inappropriate,” said psychologist Steven Stosny. In a frequently cited 1993 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Carol Bruess and Judy Pearson, researchers at Ohio State University, found that happier couples tended to use more private language, or “idiosyncratic communication.” Bruess and Pearson interviewed 154 married couples—spanning every life stage, from newlyweds to empty-nesters—on how satisfied they felt with their relationship, and asked them to describe personal idioms they used with their partner. 116 couples said they used at least one idiom; altogether, the couples reported a total of 370. Bruess and Pearson discovered a strong positive correlation between marital satisfaction and reported number of idioms, though both variables declined as couples aged.
“Pet names are a kind of cue to intimacy,” said Kerner, “They speak to the intimacy in a relationship. When couples stop using baby names, it’s often an indication of a lack of intimacy.”
Fortunately, “baby” isn’t the only option available to couples wanting to be cutesy. “Sweetheart” is one non-creepy classic: People have been using it as a term of endearment since the thirteenth century. And it has an especially wholesome history—the first documented use comes from the writings of an Anglo-Saxon saint. (If you want to put your own spin on it, you could try the original Middle English version: “swete heorte.”) Other early fans of “sweetheart” included Chaucer (1374’s Troilus & Crisyede: “For yeue it me myn owene swete herte”) and Shakespeare (1598, Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Curtsie sweete hartes, and so the Measure endes.”) “Honey” is another safe option; it can boast both an 800-year history and being good enough for Dunbar.
What if you drop the “y”? “Babe” is a syllable farther away from children, but it’s still infantilizing; in its first documented use as a romantic term of endearment, Ray Charles alternates “babe” with “kid,” singing, “Oh, ma babe, waltz with me, kid.”
“Some people will recoil at terms like ‘babe,’” said Kerner. “There are many women who don’t want to be referred to as ‘babe’ in any context. Maybe they find it demeaning.” A 2012 study by Siteopia.com supports Kerner’s hunch: The survey found that “babe” was the pet name UK women hated most—even beating out “Muffin,” “Pudding” and “Puppy.”
If “babe” and “baby” are out, couples might want to get creative. But more personal nicknames can cause trouble, too. “At one point my wife started calling me peanut,” recalled Kerner. “I was like, ‘I don’t wanna be called peanut.’ I found the specifics of it degrading.”
Perhaps some couples really can ignore the primary meaning of “baby.” Bruess is optimistic. “As a culture, we’ve defined ‘baby’ as an acceptable, loving nickname for a partner,” says Bruess. “In the context of most relationships, it’s kind of an easy default.”
Levkoff is less convinced. “Babies are like the ultimate possession,” said Levkoff. “When someone is your baby, they’re yours. If we’re using the term because we want to maintain some kind of hold over our partner, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate the relationship.”
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