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When Dick Cheney said, “We’re in deep doo-doo,” he was expressing himself with hypocorisma.

Hypocorisma is a type of euphemism derived from a Greek word meaning “pet name.”

The English word hypocorism may be defined as “the diminutive or otherwise altered version of a given name.”

Sometimes the original name is clear in the hypocorism:

Johnny < John Chris < Christopher Millie < Millicent Pat, Patty < Patricia

Sometimes the hypocorism differs from the original name:

Kit < Christopher Hal < Henry Ned < Edward Meg, Peggy < Margaret Molly, Polly < Mary

Hypocorisma also applies to the diminutives of ordinary words like television and “nursery words”: words used by adults in speaking to young children.

Here are examples of diminutives of ordinary words often used by adults:

telly < television undies < underwear hanky < handkerchief comfy < comfortable

Here are some typical nursery words. Several are euphemisms. Several are completely different in appearance from the words they represent:

doggy, bow-wow for dog
horsey, gee-gee for horse
choo-choo for train
pee-pee, wee-wee, number one for urine
doo-doo, poo-poo, poop, number two for feces
grown-up for adult
scaredy-cat for easily frightened person

The use of diminutives and pet names is usually an indication of affection or intimacy, but sometimes hypocorisma is used to diminish, infantilize, or insult.

For example, the same words used as endearments by family members and close friends are seen as insulting when they come from strangers.

Some people don’t seem to mind being called honey, sweetie, or babe by store clerks or other service personnel, but others feel emotions ranging from annoyance to fury:

I have walked out of restaurants after being called honey [or] babe. Dear Abby said it is sexual harassment. I HATE being called honey.

Newington police arrested a man they said became angry when a store clerk called him ‘honey’ and then punched her in the face.

A friendly “Hon” to frequent customers in a local restaurant is one thing, but in the workplace in general, employees, customers, and healthcare workers would be wise to avoid terms of endearment, especially when dealing with a segment of the population that is bombarded with such empty endearments.

People in their seventies and above are so often addressed in nursery language that researchers have a word for this type of hypocorisma: elderspeak.

According to Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, the way elderly people are talked to affects their health.

A University of Kansas study of the effects of elderspeak on people suffering from mild to moderate dementia found that when staff spoke to patients as if they were children, saying such things as “Good girl!” and “How are we feeling?” the patients were more aggressive and less receptive than if they were spoken to adult-to-adult. The study concluded that elderspeak sends a message that the patient is incompetent and “begins a negative downward spiral for older persons, who react with decreased self-esteem, depression, withdrawal and the assumption of dependent behaviors.”

Words matter. So does context. Terms of endearment are probably best reserved for the people we hold dear.

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3 thoughts on “Hypocorisma”

  1. Great new word, Maeve!

    I, too, am bothered by “elderspeak,” and the expression “How are we feeling today” is particularly annoying. As with many language issues, context is very important. In any given context, if the wrong language register is user, conflict will occur.

  2. I tell doctors, nurses, techs, etc., to call me “professor” because I deserve it, but so many have difficulty remembering.
    Did they never watch GILLIGAN’S ISLAND on TV ?

  3. Okay, I shall be more circumspect about the word, “honey,” unless it’s someone dear to me. Like Vic. Or does the dear have to be related?

    How about ‘passed away’ or ‘lost my (spouse”) for died. My editor boss at the weekly newspaper in Laverne, Oklahoma years ago cautioned me against those terms.

    Keep up the good work, Dr. Maddox.

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