Saturday, July 31, 2010

Edible Babies?

This post is NOT about Jonathan Swift's classic satire, "A Modest Proposal," though if you have never read it I highly recommend you do.

I'm thinking about how we use nicknames related to food.

This is most common with babies, and in particular with girl babies. There are a few words, like "honey" and "sugar" and "sweetie pie" (focus on the "pie") that can apply to both boys and girls. However, nicknames like "cupcake" and "peach" do not apply to boys at all, and it's nearly impossible to find food nicknames that are used exclusively for boys. The older the boys get, the less likely it is that they'll be cast in this food-related light. "Beefcake" after all is an unnatural word, invented as a response to the use of "cheesecake" for females.

What does it mean? Well, I'm not about to claim that food nicknames have any literal cannibalistic meaning. However, as a mom who very often threatens playfully to eat her children up, I have some thoughts. This metaphorical "eating" usually has to do with kissing, and I think there is a parallel between the use of eating nicknames and the appropriateness of affectionate kissing with children (usually within the family, but not always). Boys learn to disapprove of it much earlier, and to expect a kind of physical autonomy that makes rough play okay, but snuggly intimacy not okay (I personally think this is a shame). There's also an element of permission involved in being the one "eaten" that can be interpreted as submissiveness - more grist for the feminist mill, and I'm sure that could potentially generate some story ideas.

I think it would be useful to consider what form this sort of intimacy might take in a fantasy or alien society. One could explore an alternate avenue for the nicknaming - different foods might be an obvious direction to go. Another alternative might be to consider physical expressions of intimacy that don't involve the mouth (for cultural or physiological reasons), and see what directions your nicknames might take as a result.

It's something to think about.


  1. Well, I'm not about to claim that food nicknames have any literal cannibalistic meaning.

    I don't know. When my daughter was born two years ago, I was surprised at the number of women who kept saying how they wanted to bite her cheeks. Not having been around women who were obsessed with a newborn baby, I found all this talk rather peculiar at the time. (Fortunately, as my daughter's gotten older the cheek-biting talk has dropped off over time.)

    Another alternative might be to consider physical expressions of intimacy that don't involve the mouth...

    Although it did involve the mouth, I was fascinated with some scenes in C.J. Cherryh's Cuckoo's Egg, in which two of the "alien" Shonunin characters licked the eyes of the human child as a means of bonding to that child.

  2. Does it count that I call my boys "Children McNuggets"?

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys! I have also had the occasion to wince as ladies offered to pinch and/or bite my daughter's cheeks. Still I think it's an extreme form of the intimacy gesture! Thanks for sharing the C.J. Cherryh example.

    Actually, Brad, I think it does. My brother had a food-related nickname too. On the other hand, these seem to be more idiosyncratic and less widespread or standardized.

    [After my husband's reaction to the Swift piece, I feel I should point out that gruesome as it seems, it was actually written as a satirical criticism of the English exploitative treatment of the Irish at the time it was written.]

  4. LOL! My mom called us all "pumpkin".

    If I hadn't known Swift was Irish, I'd have been shocked - which I'm sure was his intent.

  5. Swift's Modest Proposal is one of the most biting satires in human history. As for babies, endearments are largely cultural and the food connections may have to do with the rather impoverished English love vocabulary. Greeks call their children (and their lovers) my soul, my heart, light of my eyes, my singing bird, my golden nugget, my star, my life, my sun. Germans and Russians have equivalent endearments, so it's not just us emo Mediterraneans.

    Donald Kingsbury's tremendous novel Courtship Rite contains literally edible babies: humanity has settled a planet whose flora/fauna is mostly poisonous; one outcome is disciplined cannibalism.

  6. Athena, thanks for commenting! I think there are more endearments in English than just food-related ones (fortunately!). On the other hand, I love the endearments you listed. Thanks for the book recommendation; it sounds fascinating.

  7. Interesting thoughts. I call my son "punkin", not quite pumpkin, since he was never that roly poly, but my own variation. I never heard the biting the cheeks, but we did joke about nibbling his toes. (Still do some, but more of a prelude to tickling his feet)

    My mother-in-law's nickname for my husband was "tiger." Still uses it occasionally, too, though it's funny when she's uses it for the little one without thinking about it.