(A version of this article appeared in the Feb 12th Globe &Mail)
Why lovers are bird-brained
“On wings of love and fly to me my turtle dove.”
“As clear and pure as a turtle dove, and that is what fills me with love.”
I espied these two saccharine messages recently while perusing Valentine’s Day cards and had the humdrum epiphany that the turtle dove is the quintessential symbol for Valentine’ s Day. (Do not confuse the turtle dove with the reptilian turtle. The bird’s name in Old English was turtur, an onomatopoeic rendering of the bird’s coo.) Not only does “turtle dove” conveniently rhyme with “love,” but the turtle dove is also said to be a very solicitous partner that constantly dotes on its mate. This sense is reflected in the following passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Take her for me... Yea, turtledove her.”
The turtle dove is but one example of the “animalistic” nature of romance. Lovers are referred to in other beastly ways such as “bunny,” “kitten,” “puppy,” “sparrow,” “sparling,” “lambkin,” “tiger,” and “stallion,” and are even compared to potentially disease-infested rodents, such as mice and squirrels.
The metaphorical use of animals to refer to lovers is a time-honoured practice. In his book The Lover’s Tongue, Mark Morton relates that the period from the 15th to the 18th century represented the apogee for the metaphorical comparison of one’s beloved with livestock: “People interacted with animals not just in their McNugget or Quarter-Pounder incarnations, but as fellow creatures, sharing the same plot of farmland, if not the same house.”
For example, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the character Pistol exclaims, “Good bawcock, bate thy rage, use lenitie, sweet chuck!” “Bawcock” is a corruption of the French beau coq which means “beautiful cock” or more euphemistically “fine rooster”; “chuck” here is a variation of “chick.” In the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s 16th century verse In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nycht, a woman in the poem addresses her lover thus: “My belly huddrun , my swete hurle bawsy” which translates as “My big lummox, my sweet unweaned calf.” I may never ever again be able to eat steak tartare without blushing.
Perhaps it would also be wise to avoid employing the term of endearment piggsneye, (especially if your beloved is kosher) used by Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale in 1388. The OED defines it as “one specially cherished; a darling, pet; commonly used as an endearing form of address.” It is a combined form of “pig’s-eye” and the OED relates that it “originated in children's talk and the fond prattle of nurses.” Its last recorded usage dates back to 1941 in C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters: “My dear, my very dear Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie.”
Of course, terms of endearment can transcend comparing your beloved to an animal. You can also employ nonsense rhymes such as “cutie wootie,” or “tootsie wootsie.” If you find these terms annoying, take solace that many others of this ilk are now archaic. In All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare refers to a husband’s “kicky-wicky” which transfers from its literal sense as a gray mare to a wife. Other rhyming terms that have similarly vanished are “gol-pol” (a woman with blonde hair), “crowdie-mowdie” (oatmeal and water eaten uncooked,) and the nonsensical duo of “slawsie gawsie” and “tyrlie myrlie.”
Equally grating are the variety of “–ums” words used as forms of endearment. These seem to have originated as terms for children (or cats) but were soon adopted by babbling, inarticulate lovers. Here we have the quartet of “diddums,” “pussums,”
“pookums” and “snookums.”
By the way, if you choose to call your beloved by some inane or bestial name this Valentine’s Day, please diregard everything I've written above.
Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.