Bene salutando consuescunt, compellando blanditer, osculando, oratione uinnula, uenustula.
‘They get used to us through nice greetings, sweet addresses, kissing, tender and delightful speech.’
– Plautus Asinaria 222-223
In most instances, the ancient graffiti that contain a term of endearment don’t tell us much about networks, as few of them actually contain a real name. Instead, they offer us insight to the kind of relationships people had, how they recorded these, and more interestingly, what was an accepted or normal way to refer to one’s beloved. Though there are many similarities in the vocabulary of endearments regardless of language, whether ancient or modern, many of the Latin terms of endearment are not necessarily palatable to the modern Anglophone ear. Whilst foodstuffs and diminutives abound in most cases, some of the Latin examples may seem as dissonant as the French preference for cabbage – as in mon petit chou – over an English predilection for desserts – ‘cupcake’ or ‘honey’. Referring to someone as the sweetest or most loveable is common enough – dulcissimae amantissimaeque as in CIL IV 8177 – and is probably the most typical kind of epithet, particularly in funerary inscriptions. But the graffiti in Pompeii also reveals a predilection for slightly more unusual endearments.
CIL IV 1780
Quid faciam vobis, ocilli lusci
‘What shall I do for you, twinkling eyes?’
CIL IV 1970
Noete, lumen, / va(le), va(le) / usque va(le).
‘Noete, my light, greetings! Greetings! Infinite greetings!’
CIL IV 1781 = CLE 1785
Mea vita meae deliciae, ludamus parumper: / hunc lectum campum, me tibei equom esse putamus.
‘My life, my delight, let us play for awhile: let this bed be our field and let me be your charger’
CIL IV 8870
A(n)ser, ab(i) amo(e)na[e] / loco.
‘Gosling, leave my delight alone.’
The above seem relatively straightforward and fairly normal to the modern viewer. Indeed, most Romance languages actually retain the Latin use of referring to a paramour as ‘my life’ as in CIL IV 1781. But there are more still where the original meaning may be lost to us:
CIL IV 5094
Primige[ne]nius / Successe salute. / Val(e) mea pistilla.
‘Primigenius greets Successa. Hello, my pestle.’
CIL IV 4447
Fonticulus Pisciculo suo / plurma salut(e).
‘Warmest regards from Puddle to her Fishlet.’
Varone explains these away as ‘delightful nicknames, which, as always happens, have a more or less obvious sexual connotation’. Whether or not this is true or just a reflection of a modern grasping at innuendo in lieu of recognizable terms of affection is difficult to say. If we turn away from the graffiti and look to other ancient texts, such as Plautus’ Asinaria, we find similar motifs in the endearments as those found on the walls of Pompeii, utilizing imagery of love, light, and animals.
Plautus Asinaria, 664-668; 691-696.
PHIL.: Da, meus ocellus, mea rosa, mi anime, mea uoluptas, Leonida, argentum mihi, ne nos diiunge amantis.
LEO: Dic me igitur tuom passerculum, gallinam, coturnicem, agnellum, haedillim me tuom dic esse uel uitellum, prehende auriculis, compara labella cum labellis.
PHIL: ‘Give the money to me, apple of my eye, my rose, my soul, my joy. Leonida, stop separating us lovers.’
LEO.: ‘Then call me your little sparrow, your hen, your quail; call me you little lamb, your kid, or your little calf; grab me by the ears and put your lips on mine.’
PHIL: Mi Libane, ocellus aureus, donum decusque amoris, amabo, faciam quod uoles, da istuc argentum nobis.
LIB.: Dic igitur med aneticulam, columbam uel catellum, hirundinem, monerulam, passerculum putillum, fac proserpentem bestiam me, duplicem ut habeam linguam, circumda torque bracchiss, meum collum circumplecte.
PHIL.: ‘My dear Libanus, my golden eye, love’s gift and glory, please, I’ll do what you like, but give us this money.’
LIB.: ‘Then call me your little duck, your dove, your puppy, your swallow, your jack-daw, your teeny-weeny sparrow, turn me into a reptile so that I have a double tongue. Put a chain around me with your arms, embrace my neck.’
In this play, the terms of endearment are being used facetiously between characters arguing over the money a pair of lovers wish to use to buy away the woman from her mother’s employ as a prostitute. Here, this language is used in a cajoling and pleading manner, in order to better convince the pair holding the funds. Nevertheless, these scenes demonstrate the type of language that was typical of exchanges between lovers, which in some sense could be formulaic, but at the same time could be distinctive to the place, time, or couple.
The individuality of the words shared by lovers is best demonstrated in a final graffito:
CIL IV 1477
Victoria va(le) et ub(i)que vis / suaviter sternu<te>s.
‘Farewell, my Victoria, and wherever you go, may you sneeze sweetly.’
Whilst sneezing may not seem the most romantic attribute to note, for Victoria and her lover, this held some particular meaning. I like to imagine she had an especially cute way of sneezing that her partner found endearing, similar to the sentiment expressed when Adam Duritz sings: ‘And every time she sneezes, I believe its love.’
Perhaps, that in itself is the clue to the somewhat odd way of expressing affection found in the graffiti – for most lovers, the sweet addresses and tender delightful speech is highly personal and individual. Being referred to as a fishlet or pestle may be off putting to some, but may be the most endearing phrase imaginable to another.