Anyone who calls their significant other snookums, pickle, anything like that…yuck. Cuz everyone hates baby-talk couples, right? Those couples who sit and smooch for hours and gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes? A few years ago, I was sitting in a library that was packed to the brim with students. Suddenly, a load of people around me got up to go to lunch. I was stuck opposite a couple who were draped around each other like scarves, and they proceeded to stick their tongues in each others’ mouths for around 10 minutes. Those 10 minutes were the worst 10 minutes of my entire life. I felt too awkward to get up and leave because it was so quiet. I just sat there while they snogged each other. No-one wants to be that couple. No-one would have wanted to be me, either. Except…
It turns out, annoyingly, that those ridiculous couples are actually the most in love. It’s a beneficial thing. Almost a year ago now my boyfriend showed me a tweet that I’ve thought about at least once a week since.
Every long-term relationship, whether lovers or friends, becomes its own two-person subculture, with its own dialect, myths, rituals, ethics, and aesthetics. The better matched the people, the weirder that subculture ends up looking to everyone else.
— Geoffrey Miller (@primalpoly) March 16, 2018
Lackington’s Magazine’s response made me cry.
Truth. Years ago someone we knew lost his wife to cancer and one of the first things he posted on social media after her death was, “I am the sole surviving speaker of a dead language.”
— Lackington’s Magazine (@Lackingtons) March 18, 2018
When my boyfriend first showed me this tweet, we had just started dating. We hadn’t yet developed one of those secret languages that only lovers have. I still found it heartbreaking; because this two-person subculture is so central to friendships and relationships with family. You form a whole set of references that no-one else understands. We see this so much in films; Theodore Twombley and Samantha, in the film Her, have this kind of a relationship, and that’s part of the reason that Theodore finds it so upsetting to hear that Samantha is talking to other people. She has her own subculture with other people, one that he’ll never understand. That whole “us against the world” trope, played to death in films and novels, really just describes two people having their own little subculture that nobody else really understands.
I recently read a hefty tome of letters sent by Nabokov to his wife, and I was enamored by the cutesy language he used to describe his spouse. The beginnings of his letters are tinged with an infectious love for his partner; he calls her Lumpkin, Tufty, Pupuss, Kittykin, Monkeykins, and even a long bird of paradise with the precious tail. These names are derived from those of cuddly toys he sends her, whilst she is recuperating from depression and anxiety in a sanatorium, away from home. He begins each letter with a little comment about the cuddly toy he is sending, and vividly describes the detailed personalities and temperaments of each toy.
Suzanne Weiss, of The Cut, writes of how she and her partner started adding little extra syllables into common words around a few months into their relationship. She thought it was intensely embarrassing, but, after a few confidential discussions with friends, realized she wasn’t the only one. She found out that a friend and his partner say “huggle” instead of “hug”. This is something me and my boyfriend also say. Most of our cute little terms are from the Facebook group Dogspotting, and include but are not by any means limited to; doggo, chimken (it’s meant to be chicken, but we use it for child), mlem, blep, peet (foot) catto and zoomies. This weird thing basically commenced once my boyfriend and I started dating. I was (and still am) obsessed with dogs, and I was also obsessed with the dog group. I jokingly told my boyfriend, after our first date, that I would only allow a second date if he learnt some of the doggo terms. He instantly loaded up the notes app on his phone, and noted down every one of the terms. I tested him on the second date, to see if he had really learned them, and he got every single one right. The freaky thing is (besides all of these words) that baby-names are a way for us to form more intimate connections, to form bonds that flourish.
It’s something we see in the animal kingdom, too. Yesterday I learned that puffins make and maintain friendships through something that looks a little like a handshake. They brush their bills together. This allows them to form a pair bond; a friendship. Every night, before we go to sleep, my boyfriend and I do the same thing with our noses. We call it a “mate goodnight”. This weird little ritual began when my partner told me that chimps and other animals achieve a pair bond when they groom each other. I thought it was the cutest thing since Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which is categorically the cutest thing of all time. I can’t remember exactly when, how or why we started doing the “mate goodnight”, but it’s our final expression of love for the day. It’s what I think about as I fall asleep. Occasionally I panic that we haven’t done our “mate goodnight”, and so I’ll demand one. Sometimes it’ll turn out that we have already performed this silly ritual, but I feel a bit worried, and so we do a second, or even a third. Sometimes we do a “mate hello” — basically the same thing, but just a greeting version. My boyfriend often adopts the “mate” thing we do when I am feeling really anxious, as he knows it calms me.
The importance of this subculture cannot be overstated, but sharing your own language is just one aspect of this. Maybe you find baby-names humiliating, rather than enlightening. That’s okay. You probably have something else that ties you together. Maybe you dress or speak alike. Maybe you mimic each others’ movements. A study found that married couples who used “we” rather than “I” — that is, that referred to each other as a unit when they used pronouns, or as individuals — were more likely to be together six months after the research took place. Those couples who used the “we” pronouns were more likely to be happier, too.
I love that bittersweet feeling at the start of a relationship when you just want to tell the other person everything about yourself. It’s bittersweet because, for me at least, it’s always tinged with a hurried panic. You want to tell that other person everything now. In his second letter to her, dated the 8th November 1923, he tells her ‘I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it — and can’t recall a single trifle I’ve lived through without regret — so sharp! — that we haven’t lived through it together — whether it’s the most, the most personal, intransmissible — or only some sunset or other at the bend of a road’.
You want them to understand just how you came to be the person they see before them. You want to show them where you grew up, who you met and made friends with, who your neighbors were. You want to share your “old” life with that person. You want that subculture right now, because without it you are just two people who don’t really know each other. Otherwise, there’s nothing to draw you two together. Maybe there’s sex, but that’s not really enough. You are just two acquaintances, pretty much strangers, who may or may not be having sex. It’s through those shared references that you bond, and through drawing on those shared experiences that you strengthen that bond.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love and is republished here with permission from the author.
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