As a child I would occasionally hear my father call my mother ‘Sheldon.’ Her name, in fact, is Shelley, and I was puzzled why he would call her by a male name — especially one that to me conjured images of a bespectacled nebbish (apologies to Sheldons Whitehouse and Silverstein — but not Adelson — for that sweeping generalization). Aside from that, his terms of endearment were of the standard English stock: sweethearts and honeys aplenty, with sweeties sprinkled in for good measure.
I didn’t have a sweetie of my own until I was 16 years old. Her name was Johanna, and we were co-editors of our high school newspaper. Both of us being writers, we delighted in playing phonetically with each other’s names, as well as inventing affectionate terms in our conversations and love letters, each trying to out-do the other’s creativity. For example, fantasizing of the day we’d be married, we saw that her initials would be JRZ. Pronouncing this as an initialism inspired the nickname Jersey (which had compelling potential for relevant gifts and trips down the road).
Both of us also being students of German, we pursued this linguistic game in two languages. German, it should be noted, is not bereft of sweet suffixes, despite its harsh reputation; several common English diminutive suffixes stem from Proto-Germanic, including -kin and -ling. Rip out those roots, and English loses such treasured terms of endearment as ‘munchkin,’ ‘pumpkin’ and ‘darling.’
Often a name would evolve through iteration, with successive generations mutating over a matter of weeks or even days. It was this process that eventually led to the purchase of an antique map of a body of water in Scotland known as The Minch, which separates islands in the Inner and Outer Hebrides. I had months earlier started calling her ‘Mini,’ which is likely not highly original as pet names for girlfriends go (for the majority of us who date women shorter in stature, anyway). ‘Mini’ turned into ‘Miniature’ (I think we took some perverse linguistic pleasure at counter-abbreviating), which was then re-shortened to ‘Minch.’ And when we serendipitously stumbled upon this word on an old map at a flea market, we marveled at the coincidence and mounted the Minch to my wall.
That relationship came to an ugly end, as one might expect from such a florid first love. Of course I despaired at having ‘wasted’ so many sweet names on this failed relationship, and worried I’d have nothing worthwhile left for the next one. So naturally I leapt at the next opportunity to bestow my cutesy creativity — and you don’t need to be Dr. Drew or Dan Savage to know what happened next.
Nicole was her name, and she was the most beautiful girl who had ever requited my interest. So smitten was I — and eager to do what (I thought) would help stake my claim to permanent territory in her heart — that I rapidly developed nicknames for her (NickNames, I called them, naturally.) While Nicole may have been able to overlook my fedora (after discovering I was not, in fact, balding), she couldn’t overlook my eagerness to take our relationship to the next level. At least three golden pet names in, I found myself single again.
It was several years before I once again found myself in a relationship worthy of pet names. Once again, both of us were word tinkerers. The quick discovery of a mutual love of cuddling led to a series of interrelated names.
It began when I complimented what a snug little spoon she was — how ‘holdable’ she felt. So if ‘holdable’ describes excellence at being held, what, we pondered, was the word to describe excellence at holding. After much deliberation and suffix swapping, we settled on ‘holditude.’ Thus she became ‘holdability’ and I became ‘holditude,’ which were readily abbreviated to h and H (the cases indicating our respective sizes, naturally). Inspiration from our cuddling also generated another pair of nicknames for each other: Barnacle for me, since I would cling to her back like an arthropod on a pier; and Featherbone for her, since she felt so weightless in my arms.
That relationship crumbled apart, leaving me more broken than I’d been in nearly a decade. I was distraught at losing the woman I’d expected to marry, and nearly as distraught at the thought of starting pet name creation from scratch. Forty first dates in San Francisco bore no fruit, but a home-for-Thanksgiving Tinder match blossomed into a relationship with ample pet name potential.
Rachel was a Harvard-educated PhD who loved Scrabble and crossword puzzles — in other words, she was into wordplay too. Unfortunately for me, her fondness for words wasn’t accompanied with a fondness for romance. So it was no surprise when my first name for her was Robot Rachel. That became Robozo when I wanted to tease her a bit more, then Rubik when I sought a more creative way to express her enigmaticness, and finally Ruby to add some cute femininity back into the name. Despite my best efforts to build romance through verbal intimacy, this long-distance relationship didn’t make it through the spring.
But as fate would have it, Tinder brought a new woman into my life not long after. Once again it took a four-hour flight from San Francisco to find a match — this one in Mexico City. Melissa (or Isa, as I knew her initially from her profile) was fortunately fluent in English (fortunate for the sake of conversation as well as comprehension of my word-twisting habits). This being yet another long-distance relationship, textual chemistry was key to romantic development.
Fairly readily I realized our first initials were the same as the first letters in ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’ which I read as a positive portent. (Incidentally she shared the same name as my true first ‘girlfriend’ — the daughter of family friends whom I’d met at my Bar Mitzvah, and with whom I struck up the first of my long-distance relationships. I read these signs as a sort of ouroboros of my life.)
Early on she took to calling me honeybunny, which was soon shortened to bunny, then bun. Given its brevity and name-agnostic nature, I took to calling her bun as well. And soon, in the sort of reduplication that’s only acceptable among infants and couples, I turned this into bunbun. This name stuck, and is probably the most common way we address each other to this day. Melissa also invented the base of our other pet-name pair: Davers and Melers. Somewhere along the way she’d picked up the ‘-ers’ suffix as her preferred way of diminutizing words, from ‘bellers’ for belly to ‘moners’ for money. Naturally my name followed suit, and I liked the pattern enough to adopt it for her name as well. Which brings me back to Sheldon. Because what I realized after all these years of worrying about pet names is that a good pet name doesn’t have to be cute, creative, or intelligible to the outside world. It just needs to be right for the relationship.
Between Meli (obvious), Melers (cutesy), and Melon (gotta have at least one one with doodle potential), we seem to have reached a point in our relationship of pet-name equilibrium, but who knows what unexpected inspiration the future holds. At least we’ll have our whole lifetime to discover.
Happy Valentine’s Day, MZ