Some terms of endearment can be used in many languages – “baby”, “angel” and “sweetheart” for example. But some don’t travel as well as you might think. If you call a French person “honey” (“miel”) he or she may take it as a unflattering comparison with a sticky mess.
And how would you react if someone called you a cauliflower, a flea, or a baby elephant? Here is a quick guide to the language of love around the world – dominated by metaphors from cookery and the animal kingdom – with contributions by language coach Paul Noble.
Little cabbage (French)
“Chou” (cabbage) is the French equivalent of “sweetheart”. “Chou” conveys the idea of being small and round and is used to describe French puff pastry, often enjoyed as “chou a la creme”. “Chou” is said to resemble a baby’s or child’s head too. Over the years, many French children have been told that boys were born in cabbages and girls in roses. You can double it too - “chouchou” is a standard translation for “darling”.
Pumpkin (Brazil / Portuguese)
“Chuchu” is the word for “squash” - but strangely similar to the French “chouchou”. Could a French word have sneaked into Portuguese as a fancy way to refer to a loved one (even though it refers to a different vegetable)? The ending “zinho”, meaning “little”, emphasises fondness.
Egg with eyes (Japanese)
Tamago kato no kao
In Japan, women are frequently called “an egg with eyes” by those who love them. This is a great compliment, as having an oval, egg-shaped face is considered very attractive in Japanese culture – you can see this in Japanese paintings through the ages.
Lump of sugar (Spanish)
Terron de azucar
Like “honey” in English, sweet foodstuffs of one kind or another make popular terms of endearment in numerous languages. This popular one in Spanish, “terron de azucar” also means “sugar cube”. Apparently, it rates highly on the “tweeness” scale, so use sparingly.
Fruit of my heart (Indonesian)
Although the term can be used romantically, featuring in love songs and poems, today it is most often used to express affection for children. Advertisers use the term to appeal to family-oriented customers, especially young middle-class couples: “The best gift/food/product for ‘the fruit of your heart’”. You will also find the term in almost all books and articles on parenting, and it frequently appears as the name of organisations focusing on children, including a hospital near Jakarta.
My flea (French)
“Ma puce” is roughly equivalent to “sweetie” in English. One theory suggests that it could be linked to the historic relationship shared by humans and fleas - in times past, removing fleas from one another became a one-to-one grooming activity, and is alleged to have been a pleasant and sometimes intimate process.
Classical Arabic poetry abounds with the imagery of beautiful gazelles (ie women, metaphorically speaking). There are numerous references to the “lethal spears” of a beautiful woman’s gaze. If you believe the poets, hunters (ie men) can die of love-sickness after a single glance from a gazelle. Today too, a man may say to a woman, “You have the eyes of a gazelle” (“Laki uyounul ghazal”). This may imply that he has fallen under her spell sooner than she has his.
Little elephant (Thai)
Elephants are the dearest of animals to Thai people. They are supposed to bring good luck, white elephants especially. The elephant symbol might derive from the Hindu God Ganesh reflecting the great influence that Indian culture exerted across this region. Elephants so captured the nation’s heart that they once became an emblem on the country’s flag.
Diving fish swooping geese (Chinese)
Chen yu luo yan
There is a story surrounding the greatest beauty in Chinese history, a woman named Xi Shi. It’s said that she was so beautiful that when she looked at fish in a pond, the fish were so dazzled by her beauty that they forgot to swim and gradually dived to the bottom. Likewise, it was said that when geese flew overhead, they were so struck by her beauty that they would forget to flap their wings and would end up swooping to the ground. Because of this, to this day, when a young Chinese man is in love with a Chinese woman, he may indicate that, to him, she is as beautiful as Xi Shi. To do this, he will say just four words: “Diving fish, swooping geese”.
Little dove (Russian)
Golubchik (masc) / golubushka (fem)
Pushkin used the word “little dove” to refer affectionately to his elderly nanny in the lines of one of his best-known poems, but she could equally have used it to refer to him, when he was a child (and probably did). As a term of endearment it dates back at least to the Song of Songs, in the Old Testament (“O my dove... let me see thy countenance”), originally written in Hebrew. The Slavonic translation of the Bible had a profound influence on shaping the Russian language, so the Russian usage could have Biblical roots.