Baby Talk

by Chris Hancock

Wud the wordnerds like an ickle article? Wud you? Yes, you wud.

No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. This is what we call a grab-your-attention opening. If it’s worked, I’ll continue by discussing – oh, how did you guess? – Baby Talk.

Baby talk also goes under the rather dull names Motherese, Parentese, Child-directed Speech and Infant-directed Speech. It’s usually talk characterised by being delivered at a slower pace, with greater modulation (that is, with a sing-song style of speaking) and often accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions.

Two key characteristics that apply to a lot of baby talk words are reduplication (where a word is repeated identically or in a similar form, such as “bye bye” or “hurly burly”), and the adding of a “–y” ending.

So a typical baby talk day might start with baba eating brekky followed by a trip with Mama on a choo-choo train to visit Nana on her farm. Nana gives baba a drinky before showing her a field with baa-baas, moo-cows and gee-gees (or horsies). Back at the farmhouse, baba can pet Nana’s kitty-cat and bow-bow (or doggy). They come back home on another puffer train and get picked up in Dada’s brrm-brrm in time for din-dins. With all that eating and drinking, baba needs to do a widdle (or wee-wee or pee-pee) on the potty, or maybe even a poo-poo (or doo-doo or stinky). And after a super-duper day, it’s time to put on those jim-jams (or jammies) and snuggle down for some beddy-byes (or sleepy-byes).

Interestingly, as adults, we often use the same terms but without reduplication – particularly the toilet-based ones. For example wee, pee, and poo.

The baby talk phenomenon is by no means restricted to English speakers. For example, French speakers will say dada (horse), toutou (dog), toto (car), dodo (sleep), pipi (urine), caca (faeces) and zizi (penis).

Another form of baby talk uses deliberate mispronunciation of common words. So, “little” becomes ickle, “think” becomes fink, “rabbit” becomes wabbit and – most cringeworthy of all – “love” becomes wuv.


Baby talk can find its way into the written word and that doesn’t sit well with everyone. For example, in A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner (1928), Winnie the Pooh reveals that he added the “tiddely pom” to his Outdoor Song “to make it more hummy”. OK, that’s not exactly Baby Talk but it comes pretty close – and it proved to be too much for famed wit Dorothy Parker. Writing in The New Yorker under the book reviewer pen name Constant Reader, she commented: “It is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up”.

We might talk to babies in this way, but it turns out that babies are talking back. Or that’s what Australian mother Priscilla Dunstan would have you believe. She carried out a “study” and concluded that when a baby says neh he means “I’m hungry”, owh means “I’m tired” and heh means “I’m uncomfortable”. And in the matter of what is euphemistically known as “wind”, make sure you can tell the difference between eh and eairh. The former means “I require burping” whereas the latter suggests problems at the – how can I put this? – other end.

Baby talk is often associated with young couples in wuv – erm, I mean love. And it’s but a short step from baby talk to lovey-dovey pet names. In a survey published in the Daily Mail it was found that the ten most popular pet names were:

  1. Babe (or Baby)
  2. Love (or Lovely)
  3. Darling
  4. Sweetie
  5. Sweetheart
  6. Gorgeous
  7. Cuddles
  8. Doll
  9. Pudding
  10. Stinky

Yes, “Stinky”!

One that hasn’t made the list is “Snooky Ookums”. This pet name was immortalised in song by Irving Berlin and appears in the film “Easter Parade”, sung by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. It comes at 1:48 in this Vaudeville Montage (but don’t deny yourself the whole thing).

Here at That Word Site we would never normally demean ourselves by publishing the pet names favoured by celebrity couples. Heaven forfend. However, one must attempt to be inclusive and reach out to the broad demographic spectrum. Regular readers will remember my brother Calvin made a guest appearance on That Word Site – you can read it here. He might be a stickler for grammar, but he’s also an avid collector of celebrity pet names. With his imprimatur, I can reveal the following nuggets from his private collection of celebrity “goss” [“goss”? – Ed.] [Yes, “goss” – CH]:

So, film star Brad Pitt calls his filmstar wife Angelina Jolie “Kitty”, while she calls him “Miffy”.

Elizabeth Hurley and Shane Warne have revealed their special names for each other: She calls him the “Big Blond” while his pet name for her is “Luna”.

Russell Brand and Charlie Sheen have apparently struck up a friendship, and it may come as no surprise, given the egos involved, that Sheen calls Brand “Genius 1” whilst Brand calls Sheen “Genius 2”.

Maintaining the decorum that goes with their royal status, Prince William and his wife the Duchess of Cambridge refer to each other as “Mr Wales” and “Mrs Wales”.

But the experts at this pet name business seem to have been filmstar uber-couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It is a matter of record that, either verbally or in correspondence, Burton referred to Taylor at various points as “Twit Twaddle”, “my little Twitch”, “Scrupel-shrumpilstilskin”, “Lumpy”, “Booby”, “Old Fatty”, “Shumdit”, “Cantank”, “Old Snapshot” and “The Baby”. Taylor’s terms of endearment for Burton, though less in number, are equally bizarre; she referred to him as “Darling Nose” and “Drife”.

Drife? I think my advice to Ms Taylor would have been “Stick to the ones in the Top Ten, Stinky”.

Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.


102 Responses to “Baby Talk”

  1. Well aren’t you just the cutest thing! Yes you are!

  2. Stinky is one of those ghastly upper class things, isn’t?

    Thanks for the fun!

  3. Ha ha oh how you made me laugh! Thank you!

  4. I often am bewildered by the baby names couples use in public. Neighbours of ours are Squiffkins and Fuzzybum. TMI.

  5. Nothing wrong with baby talk in its place, and I am distressed at the Slandering of Winnie the Pooh! But I still wuv you.

  6. Your brother is a real card lol!

  7. You can call me Stinky if you want.

  8. I’m always intrigued by what draws you to topics – why the baby talk? Whatever your inspiration, please keep ’em coming! We wuv you!

    • I’m always just scrabbling round for any word-related topic to write about, Sindy (“scrabbling” being a rather appropriate verb in the context of words). I think I must’ve seen or heard “wuv” somewhere, retched slightly, and gone from there 😉 Thank you! :-)

  9. Such a delightful relief, your humorous pieces! And the crazy lady with the eairhs!

  10. Ooh, I’ll never think of Liz Taylor the same again!

  11. I’ve always found baby talk in grown up relationships rather demeaning. But now I shall laugh at them :)

  12. Sort of simultaneously nauseated and amused…thanks, I think!

  13. Liz Hurley and Shane Warne? Good lord. Hope their kids get her…everything, really.

  14. That’s it, I’m calling my girl Drife from now on! You are awesome.

  15. Can’t remember when last I laughed so loud! Why do you think we use baby talk on people we love?

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Werner. I think by using baby talk (of the “wuv” variety) to adults, we project a vulnerable image that triggers a protective response in them. But don’t quote me – I’m no expert.

  16. Yes, I think I’ll stick to the top ten – top nine, actually!

  17. Is that UK only, that top ten?

    • Hi there, Hayley. I’ve just checked and it says “Britain’s favourite pet names”. They sound British, don’t they? I’d imagine a US list, say, would be quite different.

  18. Eeee, let any man try some of those names on me and I will scream!

    Thanks Chris :-)

  19. Thanks for the goss and the laughs, wuv!

  20. That kitten is everything. It’s worthy of you!

  21. But…but…I love Winnie the Pooh! How will I cope with the thought that you can’t stand him? Agony.

  22. Thanks pookie bear

  23. Wuv it, your usual blend of wit and wisdom.

  24. Made me day, stinky, thanks!!!

  25. Baby talk to babies is one thing, baby talk to pets is just embarassing tho.

  26. Wuv your artickle

  27. Like some other fans, I love you – but I love Winnie the Pooh too :-(

  28. Truly fun piece, thank you!

  29. I dunno. I refer drife to stinky!

  30. Wuv, wuv, wuv it!

  31. LOL “a study”! Oh, that’s precious! You are a stunning writer Chris.

  32. Diddums!! You rock my world, stinky.

  33. Wow, I never really gave much thought to baby names we give people. Then again, my ex called me squidgy…

  34. You and Calvin are twins, right? :)

    Thanks both you hunnys.

  35. Twins, Thania? In a manner of speaking, yes. Let’s just say we do everything together 😉

    Thank you! :-)

  36. Oh thank you for that delightful vaudeville! You are always a star.

  37. Ok, repetition and y endings…got it, Chrissy Wissy!

  38. Baby sign language is a very interesting field, you may find it fascinating. It really must be frustrating to want to communicate but not have the ability.

  39. I cringed at your opening line, but you delivered insights and laughs, and I love (sorry, I can’t use the other even as a joke!) this, and your other work too.

    • Hi Isabel! Yes, that line was cut and reinstated a few times as I went along. As I say, it was a (rather crudely applied) attention-grabbing device. Thank you for such lovely compliments – I really appreciate them :-)

  40. You are incapable of doing wrong.

  41. Wahaha, some real clangers there! Thanks Chris – and Calvin.

  42. Why does that -ese ending get used so often?

    • I’m not sure. I suppose originally it meant characteristic of a race and, by association, a language. Hence “Japanese”, “Portuguese”. Then people started using it for any type of language: “journalese”, “officialese”. Hope that helps, Shanali.

  43. You are the best thing since sliced cake.

  44. Cuddles? That sounds like a pony! Thank you for a fun article as always!

  45. My hubby disapproves of baby names – I sneak in a sugar every now and then though!

  46. I shall start using those ehs and nehs in everyday conversation!

  47. I DID know a jolly posh chap who always greeted his “best friend” with an ‘eairh stinky!’…

  48. Wuvved this, and have read about half your ‘also by’s, but now *must* work – your site is superb, thank you!

  49. Lolly lolly!

  50. I was once trying to call a girlfriend “honey” and “baby” and it came out as “hubby”. She was not amused.

  51. Trackbacks

Leave a Reply