Terms of Endearment (Russian Edition)

When it comes to learning a new language, people do not often think about how difficult it is to express affection or emotion. In English, using terms of endearment is not difficult; it comes without thinking. Yet, in a new language, one has to make the conscious decision to try and use these terms, but are limited by their knowledge of the language. Thus, it becomes one of the more difficult aspects of speaking a new language and begs the question: what are some common terms of endearment in Russia?

At first glance, using terms of endearment might not be difficult. One can look at a list of commonly-used terms of endearment and use them, but one never knows which are not socially accepted, can only be used sarcastically, or are outdated. Additionally, there are different situations when such words should be used. During the past month in Russia, my host grandmother has used a variety of words that I was unaware are terms of endearment until I heard them during our conversations. At home, I hear around eight terms of endearment most often. Depending on the situation, some of them are said with affection, exasperation, or humor.

When I talk to my host, she commonly uses the terms “лапочка”, “дорогая”, and “милая”. From what I have surmised, they all mean around the same thing- sweetie, dear, darling, etc. Whether it is in conversation with me, or her family, my host freely uses these words. On the phone, I will often hear her say them as a greeting, as a goodbye, or at any point in the conversation. Conversely, the first time she used any variation of these terms was when I trying to explain something without success. My host merely held up her hand and said what roughly translates to “sweetie, I simply do not understand a single thing you are saying”. In this situation, she used a term of endearment to soften what could come across as an abrupt statement. Yet, my host also uses these terms when she is having a normal conversation, whether it is “Good morning, my dear!” or “How was your day, my darling girl.” As such, I have gathered that such terms are just simple terms of endearment that can be used to show affection in little ways.

In addition to the variants of the word “dear/sweetie/darling”, I have also heard the term “котёнок” (kitten). Differing slightly from the previous words, these words do not all mean the same thing, but the general meaning is still affectionate. In simple translation with context, “котёнок” translates to “kitten”, but in Russian, it seems to be a common to use little animals as terms of endearment, whether it is “рыбка” (little fish), “мышка” (little mouse/mooseling),  or “ласточка” (little swallow). The first time my host used the term “kitten”, I stared at her blankly until she told me it was an affectionate term.

Yet, terms of endearment do not end with animal terms, they can also include “красотка” (beauty), умница (clever one), and “девочка” (girl). All three terms can be used to show affection and slight praise. In class, if one answers a question correctly, the professor can use the term “умница” as a praise, without being too informal. When introducing me to her friends or family, my host often says “моя девочка” (my girl), instead of the more formal “student who is living in my apartment.” In my opinion, impersonal statements change into genuine displays of emotion and affection with just a few simple words.

Although I am only in the first few years of language study, it is obvious that language ability is not just limited to knowing vocabulary, but must also include the ability to express emotion or affection, too. The past month has shown me that there are so many ways to do so (hugging, linking arms, etc.), but being able to use terms of endearment in conversation is just as important.

By: Madeleine McCabe

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program, St. Petersburg, Russia

Term: Spring 2020

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