Expecting couples spend hours poring over baby name websites and books, scouring publications for the most adventurous-sounding, charmingly uncommon, or historical names for their soon-to-be little one. But chances are, once their baby arrives, they’ll continue to call him or her just that: “baby” — or some other pet name, such as “sweetie,” “cutie pie,” and “pumpkin.” Although legal names are essential to our identity, we’ll likely be called something else by our loved ones, including family, friends, and romantic partners, all our lives. People seem to have an irresistible urge to call others these sweet nicknames (and be called by nicknames themselves). But why? Ross Grossman, Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and founder of Affinity Therapy Services, explains why many people prefer pet names and how they can have more purposes than they initially seem to.

Couple snuggling on sofa

At their crux, nicknames signify affection, Grossman says, which is why most people reserve these terms of endearment for special someones. “It tells the other person, ‘I think you’re more than your given name,'” Grossman explains. And depending on the pet name, it can indicate the nature of the giver and the recipient’s relationship and oftentimes, that it’s a relationship unlike any other. “Calling someone ‘pumpkin,’ ‘buttercup,’ or ‘boo’ is saying, ‘We’ve got something personal and special that no one else has,'” he notes.

These more innocent aforementioned pet names can be applied to a variety of different types of relationships: familial, platonic, and romantic. But Grossman explains that sometimes, pet names among couples can be more implicitly sultry. “If two lovers are role-playing in the bedroom, and one of them plays an instructor role, the other might refer to them outside the bedroom as ‘professor,’ allowing both of them to essentially talk about sex in front of strangers without anyone being the wiser,” Grossman says. He likens these types of pet names to a secret handshake or the password to an exclusive club.

But it’s not all love or passion when it comes to pet names. The dynamic of a relationship can dictate whether pet names are appropriate (and if so, which ones) — and when they’re not. Most women are familiar with being called pet names by superiors in the workplace, clients, and random passersby as a thinly veiled form of patronization. (Note the dynamic of all of these relationships — or lack of relationships.) Furthermore, abusers often employ pet names to get their way. “‘Sweetie,’ ‘darling,’ and ‘honey’ can be terms used to leverage a person into doing another person’s will,” Grossman cautions. “Calling someone ‘my genius’ when asking them to help you cheat on an exam, or ‘my princess’ when borrowing money you never intend to return are just a few examples of using a pet name to influence someone to do your bidding.” For this reason, some people might not approve of being called certain pet names; a victimizer might have used these terms in the past. And of course, if you’ve seen the movie John Tucker Must Die then you know that cheaters may use nicknames so they don’t need to keep their partners’ names straight.

Although Grossman understands the inclination to use pet names, he’s still a proponent of using legal names with loved ones. “In the end, though, remember, for many people, the most beautiful sound in the English language is someone else saying their real, given name,” he says.

What are your thoughts on pet names, darlings? Let us know @BritandCo!

(Photo via Getty)