I sometimes call my sister “bo,” but other than that I refer to the humans in my life by their given names or common substitutions like “mom” or “dad”. On the other hand, I almost never refer to my pets by the names I decided they should have unless I’m talking about them to someone else. Yes, that does mean that I often talk to my pets directly. I call Drizzt, my bearded dragon, “big man” or “Drizzt-y-pie.” My American cat Isabelle is “pitoo” or “boo-boo,” while my Swiss cat Zora is “snuggle pumpkin,” “buckets,” or “butthead” (when she’s being annoying).
I have called every pet I’ve ever had by some cutsey name or, more often, a totally random word or sound. In the reverse, no one I know has a pet name for me as far as I am aware. One time, a friend suggested “kakes,” but it didn’t stick. Why do people use pet names at all? Is there some kind of mental or social benefit to that kind of communication? More importantly for me, why do I use pet names for animals but not for people? What does that say about me?
My research into these questions was disappointing. I found magazine articles arguing either that using pet names with your significant other was a great way to make the two of you feel closer or that using pet names with your significant other was an effective way to ruin your sex life (source for “McMuffin-poopin’-cakes”). I got a few semi-scientific hits, including a piece on a medical site reiterating the possible detriments to using pet names in a relationship, and one person’s analysis of female infantilization via the pet name “baby” and what she considered its possible evolutionary roots. Desperately looking for some explanation with scientific knowledge or theory to back it up, I searched for work by psychologists. There was an article from Psychology Today which was unhelpful and, frankly, weird. Everything else was about nicknames for genitalia.
There is no scientific consensus here, no overarching trend. The reasons someone may have for using pet names seem to depend entirely on her personality and her goals. She may want to deepen the bond between herself and the pet name recipient, or she may be trying to assert her dominance in the relationship.
I don’t think that either of those options is the best answer in my situation. I definitely have deeper emotional bonds with my un-pet-named family and friends than with my pets. It could be my way of expressing their identity – because my relationship with my pets is lopsided due to limited means of communication, their identities are, from my perspective, partly made up in my head. That is, because I have no knowledge of the richness of my cat’s internal emotional life, I don’t have a strong sense of who she really is in a metaphysical sense and so her given name is less tied to that identity in my mind. It would be strange for me to call my friend Brenda anything but Brenda because we know each other’s hopes and dreams and woes and struggles, and our given names convey the emotional texture of that relationship. My relationship with my cat is much less complex and so less tied to a specific sense of identity.
Another option is that I respect Brenda more than I respect Isabelle. If I called Brenda “cuddle-armpits,” she would understand those words and possibly not like them, and I don’t want to call her something that would make her unhappy. If I called Isabelle or Zora the same thing, they would simply continue to meow for food. Perhaps I use pet names for my pets because they have no way to assert a name preference and I’m just taking advantage of that.
The last possible explanation I came up with has more to do with how my brain works. I tend to think associatively, in images and idea webs and sequences of thought that seem disjointed to other people (I know this because when I think out loud, people around me tend to make comments about non sequiturs). So when I call Isabelle “pitoo,” I’m somehow communicating to myself the energetic and unexpected way she catapults herself up the back of an armchair, or when I refer to Zora as “buckets,” I’m thinking of an unusual measure of body fat percentage. This also explains why each pet gets multiple and changing pet names; the ideas that I associate with them fluctuate over time and change with context.
Our sense of our own identity is important. We learn what kind of people we are by making choices, interacting with other organisms, and keeping track of our actions over time. I certainly don’t intend to be disrespectful to my pets by making up names for them, but I don’t think I would appreciate someone else making up names for me. I would need to approve the names first in order to maintain a degree of ownership. I define who I am.