What do baby, daddy and other terms of relation or endearment mean?

Daddy, baby, sugar, sweet, honey, sweetheart, darling, precious are poetic. These are terms of endearment. They do not mean father, baby child, pleasurable substances for your taste receptors, or an object you covet and may hide, in any literal sense. But they happen a lot, and it reveals how we are liable to think.

We think poetically and literally, even at a physiological level. Discrete categories for experienced emotions and the senses are illusory and limiting; words we use do not describe merely a single referent but a chaos of emotional experience and memory. Consider Lisa Feldman’s How Emotions Are Made. Because we all have parents and the capacity to become one (inborn), we think in paternal or paternalistic terms. ‘Daddy’ does not mean father but it does relate to it. (Indeed, Daddies are usually older with male genitalia, but not always). ‘Daddy’ ordinarily means to be a caregiver, take care of, and do a good job; ‘baby’ ordinarily means to be cared for and encourage a good job. There is a conflation with dominant and submissive here (perhaps even top and bottom sex positions per gay tops and bottoms), also present in the metaphorical instances of “take someone out” or “pick someone up” and “buy someone a drink” that puts the agency as a doer and the done-to.

Yet as with all identities and expressions, most would tend toward saying they are (identify as) binary or as nonbinary (mostly so everyone in the conversation can understand), but act in a context in a way more resembling a constellation than a spectrum or continuum. Nonbinary lecturer Jacob Hale best embodies this as gender constellation. Depending on the situation and time-frame a daddy can become a baby, a baby can become a daddy, a top become a bottom and a bottom a top, and so forth. And the roles aren’t either/or; just the words are. Gender is fluid, and to some extent so is sexual expression (though self-identification, less so, and is reasonably fixed or updated by each stone butch, pansexual, bisexual etcetera themselves).

So with terms of endearment like ‘precious’ and the feline or birdlike gender typing of ‘puss’ or ‘dove’ there is a background origin in being possessive and dominative, even if the meaning is unknown, unacknowledged, or unintended. The kind of domination and possessiveness that is evidenced by footage of mating-like behaviour at clubs or parties. Plenty of primates blocking, intimidating, threatening, or discouraging rivals. It can be read in the positive as caring and protective and in the negative as owning and guarding. Given that women seldom do the same for/to men, I favour the latter. And interestingly this possessive power-relation seems near universal: no band of women has ever (on-record) raided a village for grooms as men have raided for brides. (Sex differences, as Cordelia Fine has reargued, are not natural, but the socio-historical group behaviour is striking.)

Many women campaign to be free from harassment and violence. They also campaign for men to call them women instead of girls, by the same logic as black North American slaves who made ‘man’ a popular term in reaction to whites demeaning them as infantile ‘boy’ or ‘boys’. (How many pop song lyrics are about girls and men, but not men and women?)

Now we come to sugar, sweet, honey, sweetheart. These conflate the pleasure of taste with a person. And are plausibly poetic; our brains think in trans-sensory terms. A warm personality, for instance, describes an emotional thermostat rather than an actual thermostatic + temperature. A nice sweater doesn’t (and cannot) behave nicely. A day can’t by itself be lovely and give you oxytocin and vasopressin secretion. The latter is an example of a figure of speech called synecdoche where the day comes to figure for its parts; we call a ‘lovely day’ one that contained actions that made us feel love or use lovely as an over-generous expression for plain good; as we similarly do naming a sunny day ‘pleasant’ for serotonin is released and its polar, of an overcast day as ‘miserable’ because it isn’t. In so doing we personify nature, imbuing the environment with human qualities. Through invoking our partner as sunny, sugar, sweet, honey, or sweetheart we imbue them with sweetness, pleasure, a form of satisfying goodness.

And while these trend toward the happy, disappointing and sad relations are also primitively trans-sensory: consider how we may find someone dim or dull (lack of light, vague, stupid = bad), heavy-hearted, distasteful, disgusting, rank, gross, unclean and so forth. And indeed ‘feeling sick to the stomach’ and ‘left a bad taste in the mouth’ or ‘I wash my hands of the matter’ are literal metaphors, actual phenomena. Studies have shown that. (As neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky explains in his profound book Behave.)

The smell of rubbish makes one conservative—even catalysing sentiments against foreign ideas. As does the literal smell of fear from sweat reaching one’s olfactory receptors, alter behaviour and make one more anxious and fearful. Notably, descriptions of prejudiced groups frame them as metaphorically dirty (out of place) and pathogenic (a health risk). For we evolved a distaste for threats to survival and the senses can converge with morality.

Perhaps the sugar and daddy metaphors admit some decadence since we learn to wean ourselves off of our original daddy figures and an excess of sugar is bad for your health; and the population’s too. Perhaps with certain terms of endearment, like honey, there is a bittersweet pathos to entropy-ridden relationships. Or maybe not: if people think like that, it is not consciously. And that’s kinda the point.