Column: Cutesy-wootsy look at hypocorisms


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry and Sheila (Jerry’s girlfriend for one episode) call each other “schmoopie”? This schmaltzy, saccharine show of cutesy nicknaming made the rest of the gang sick. Most people remember this episode for the “Soup Nazi” yelling “No soup for you!” I, however, can’t get the baby-talk nicknames out of my mind.

Did you know there’s a term for these pet names? It’s called “hypocorism.” We get the term from the Greek word “hypokorizesthai,” which means “to call by pet names.” In general, the term applies to whenever adults talk like babies, create diminutive nicknames for other words or names, or use another fond term to replace someone’s name. When researching this topic, I found that hypocorisms are all over the place in Australia. Some believe this is because the Aussies are generally welcoming and friendly people, and these sorts of fond nicknames flow naturally out of that interpersonal warmth.

Have you ever noticed people adding “-y” to the end of a word to make it sound cuter? That’s a hypocorism. My daughter (who is 3) calls her blanket a “blanky.” The “blanky” is fuzzy and “comfy.” Of course, the rest of our family follows suit with this kind of talk because it’s just so darn cute. A “kitten” becomes a “kitty.” “Bird” turns into “birdy.” In the 1920s, the term “chamber pot” gave us the word “potty.” In our family, we’ve gone so far down the hypocorism rabbit hole that koalas have become “koalies.”

I’m sure you’ve known someone named “John” who goes by “Johnny.” “Deborahs” end up as “Debbys,” “Tims” become “Timmys” and “Jims” are called “Jimmys.” At least, that’s what you call them through elementary school. At some point in middle school, they come back from summer break with a lower voice and they say, “I go by Jim now.” These diminutive name versions are a form of hypocorisms.

Think about when you’re talking to someone dear to you. Instead of saying “Agnes” (if Agnes is the focus of your endearment), you say “honey.” Most of the time these types of pet names are reserved for significant others, but sometimes we call our kids “sweetie.” In the “Seinfeld” example, “schmoopie” is about as absurd as it gets, but I’m sure you have a dating or married couple who calls each other “babe.” While “babe” is a far cry from “sugar pie” or “honeybunch,” it counts as a form of hypocorism, or as I like to call it, a precious wittle hypycory.