The Name Game

The first time I called my wife "my apple blossom of a thousand perfumes," she started making noises I'd never heard before. I was reaching around her to begin the Heimlich maneuver before I realized they were simply helpless, grunting guffaws.

Maybe I was a little overenthusiastic, but this was early in our marriage, and in those heady times, sweet nothings were still really something. A weekend apart was enough to make me compose sorrowful poems. (To my own horror, I once wrote one that began, "My heart is heavier than the clientele at the Old Country Buffet.") A 6-month anniversary was a chance to write headlong haiku. And if things got a little hackneyed or trite now and then, well, it could be blamed on the recklessness of passion. But marriages change over time, and so do terms of endearment. Recently I told Michelle that I loved her like a corn dog.

Which brings up an important point: It may seem like a bit of the romance is lost in a relationship when something like this happens, but changing from a fragrant flower to batter-covered meat on a stick is not a bad thing. Understanding why that is means taking a closer look at both the mechanics of a sweet nothing and the peculiarities of the male brain.

What's in a Nickname?

When I composed those fanciful phrases early in our relationship, they were made of air and light, wisps of my imagination. When I told Michelle that I loved her like a corn dog, it was far higher praise than it sounds. For starters, I really like corn dogs. And so do our three sons. We've eaten them at many of our happiest times together. They are the default meal at our kids' birthdays, on visits to the state fair, and at roadside restaurants. Corn dogs have become a reminder of all those moments filled with love and laughter and ketchup.

The funny thing is, Michelle doesn't even like corn dogs. This lends still more affection to the pet name because it makes me think of how she pops them in the oven just for us while she nibbles on celery or a deviled egg or one of the other ingredients of a party meal.

Pet names and sweet nothings have become my linguistic shorthand, an unplanned language developed over the years that describes the state of our union at any given moment. Most of the time I call her "honey" or "babe," the pet name equivalents of gray sweatpants. There's nothing wrong with either -- the problem with both comes from overuse. Too many straight weeks of "honey" is an indication that our relationship is flying on autopilot and a signal that we need to book a babysitter soon if we're going to avoid turbulence ahead. If I trot out a "Babycakes" or a "Love Puddle" at least a handful of times each month, then our relationship is going pretty well. If I make something entirely new up, things are rosy indeed.

I wish now that I had written down more of these made-up affectionate labels because I've forgotten most of the things I've called my wife over the years. If I had put them on paper, each would have reminded me immediately of that particular phase in our relationship -- where we were, what we were doing, how we felt about each other. Scientists say that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, but what if the scent is an imaginary one, made of a thousand apple blossoms? I'd argue that it's just as powerful as any noseful of Chanel.

Naming Rights

I've found that terms of endearment are generally a male specialty. Most women don't use them, or if they do, the ones they pick are pretty generic. A friend of ours calls her husband "Bud," for example, even though his name is Matt. She doesn't know where "Bud" came from. It just sounded good to her. Michelle calls me "my love" from time to time, which is sweet and all, but she uses the same term for the boys, the dog, and, occasionally, her warmest flannel pajamas.

I think it's mostly a male trait because men learn early on to express affection through pet names. We never called the guys in the school hallway or locker room by their real names. If we ran into a good friend, we used a name that was always some combination of cured cheese, the male organ, and the smell of decomposition. It was somehow easier than saying, "Hey, great game and thanks for falling back and protecting the goal when I let that guy get by me. By the way, I love you like a brother."

Even my father-in-law, a pretty conservative fellow by most measures, emotional and otherwise, was unabashed in his use of pet names. Only once did I hear him tell my mother-in-law he loved her, though he clearly did. But he had a litany of loving names for her. He usually alternated between "Hot Lips" and "Resident Love Goddess." He got the former from the movie M.A.S.H. and the latter from a newspaper columnist somewhere. I'm sure there's a story behind his choice of each, but he's not around to ask anymore. He's been gone over a year now, and my mother-in-law continues with the highly emotional process of deciding which things of their marriage to keep and which to set aside, both for healing's sake and for closet space. One thing she cannot part with: a stained and chipped coffee mug with the words "Hot Lips" printed on the side. To me, there's no better proof that sweet nothings really are everything.

These days, the pet names I come up with may appear less elaborate than those of the early years, but they are actually far more intricate. They may not be as flowery, but they possess something even more important: the memories of almost everything my wife and I have come to hold dear. My most fervent wish is that years from now, when I am dead and gone, Michelle will take her morning coffee onto the back porch and sip it from an ugly old mug with the words "Corn Dog" lettering the side -- and that she will remember just how much I loved corn dogs.

Christian Millman lives 10 minutes from where the Iowa State Fair -- home of the world's best corn dogs -- is held every summer. There are 25 other meats on a stick available at the fair. He has sampled every single one.
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