Valentine sweets a carry-over from fruit-eating apes

February 14, 1991|By Diane Winston

This morning, sweethearts around the nation are greeting each other with flowers, candy and colorful nicknames. Some may coo "pooh," others sigh "mama-san," and still others call to their "tenderoni."

But a majority of lovers will fall back on words that trip off the lips -- words which recall happy, fulfilling and vaguely forbidden times. They are the bywords of poets from Shakespeare to Van Morrison.

Words like "sugar," "honey," "muffin" and "cupcake," the sweet words of love.

"Sweetness in love is most dramatically revealed in English and German," said Sidney Mintz, a cultural anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins University. "Other languages don't do that. In French, for example, you call someone 'my little cabbage.' "

Dr. Mintz offers history-rich reasons to explain the connection between Cupid and calories. Man's oldest ancestors were drawn to sweet-tasting fruits, and more recent relations -- citizens of the 18th century -- considered sugar and honey to be luxury items.

"We are descended from arboreal fructivores" said Dr. Mintz, referring to fruit-eating primates. "Sweetness was a flag of edibility. That's why I think there is a preference for the sweet taste among humans, which makes it different than the three other basic tastes: sour, bitter and salty."

Added to the general bent for sweet things -- try imagining your beloved as "baby anchovy" or "sour pickle" -- is the American ardor for sugar. Mixed in breakfast cereals, salad dressings, ketchup and coffee, sugar is a staple of the U.S. diet.

That may be because no one cuisine covers the American mosaic. Cajun food may not go down in Des Moines and lutefisk (dried cod) may be hard to swallow in Long Island, but everyone loves a good chocolate chip cookie.

"People came here at different times and from different places so there was no central cuisine around which everyone could orient," explained Dr. Mintz. "Sugar became an important food after the Civil War and increasingly more important since the 20th century.

"We consume more sugar than anyone else."

Americans may dote on sugar, but Baltimoreans seem stuck on honey -- the short form "hon" being the native endearment of choice. And, while locals like to think they coined the term, a national survey by R. H. Bruskin Associates for Korbel Champagne Cellars' Department of Romance, Wedding and Entertainment found "honey" was the most widely used term for loved ones, according to the New York Times.

Still, for those who find sweet words cleave to the tongue, other vocabularies can speak of love. Some people use terms denoting value -- "precious" or "dear" -- to describe their inamoratas. Others choose animal names -- "pigeon" or "pup."

"When speaking of love, we also use terms for small, furry animals -- all that kitten and bunny stuff," said Dr. Mintz. "The significance of that, I don't want to pursue."

The language of love

"Of all life's sweets, the very sweetest yet!

O who but can recall the eve they met." -- Charles Swain

"Sugar, sugar. You are my candy girl and you got me wanting you." -- sung by the Archies

"Sugarpie, honeybunch, you know that I love you. Can't help myself." -- sung by the Four Tops

"Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty. Youth's a stuff will not endure." -- William Shakespeare

"What is a kiss? Why this as some approve: The sure, sweet cement, glue and lime of love." -- Robert Herrick

"She's as sweet as Tupelo honey." -- sung by Van Morrison

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