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I've looked up Wikipedia's article on Hypocorism, which states (emphasis mine):

Hypocorisms include pet names or calling names, often a diminutive or augmentative form of a word or given name when used as a nickname or term of endearment.

The question Female Pet Names that a Londoner might use? on Writing.StackExchange lists names like "darling" or "sweetie" as examples of so-called pet names. I remember that I have heard the term used similarly before and Wikipedia lists these names in their article about term of endearment.

The article lists an example for French where "my duck" is apparently a pet name and I know that German has some examples that mean animals like "mouse" or "rabbit", but I couldn't find any evidence that this type of "pet names" are used in English, too, (except for the Wikpedia article on terms of endearment that lists "honey bunny" as one example throughout the text) or any indication that terms like these would be the origin of the phrase.

I was wondering what the origin of this phrase are: why are names like "sweetie", "cutie" and "honey" today often referred to as "pet names" in English?

  • The full OED gives the etymology as Scottish Gaelic peata tame animal, now also ‘spoilt child’. OP's specific sense derives from definition B2a - Specially cherished; for which one has a particular fondness or weakness; favourite (first recorded as I cherish..a pet system in a letter by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1819). – FumbleFingers Apr 18 '18 at 14:14
  • @FumbleFingers Apply for a job at the OED? – TripeHound Apr 18 '18 at 14:20
  • 'Duck' is a common pet name in the Midlands of England. However, I think the term 'pet name' comes from 'pet' in the sense of 'favourite' rather than that of 'tame animal'. – Kate Bunting Apr 18 '18 at 14:35
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    @FumbleFingers And I just found ["Her real name was Philoclea.......but her nurse having given her the pet name of Psyche.....when she was stolen away.....at five years old.....by some villains, and sold to the priestess of Delphos........it was the only name she knew"][1] It's in Confessions in Elysium or The Adventures of a Platonic Philosopher published in 1804 [1]: babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/… – Phil M Jones Apr 18 '18 at 14:59
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OED Online (Third Edition, 2005) gives, for 'pet', a derivation that includes Scottish Gaelic, Early Irish, and Irish:

Origin: A borrowing from Scottish Gaelic. Etymon: Scottish Gaelic peata.
Etymology: < Scottish Gaelic peata tame animal, now also 'spoilt child' (Early Irish petta, Irish peata tame animal, occasionally referring to spoilt humans), ....

Use with the meaning "spoilt human" almost certainly contributed to adoption of the collocation 'pet name', in the sense where a 'pet name' expresses "fondness or familiarity" (OED).

OED goes on to observe that the

Scottish Gaelic and Irish noun is also used preceding a noun in the genitive to specify the kind of pet, e.g. Early Irish petta eoin a pet bird, lit. 'a pet of a bird'. This may underlie the uses as adjective in English.

In summary, the noun 'pet' was borrowed from Scottish Gaelic peata, "tame animal", which in turn came from Early Irish petta and Irish peata; occasional use referring to "spoilt humans" in Irish, as well as uses with a genitive noun that underlie adoption of 'pet' as an adjective in English, probably contributed to adoption of the collocation 'pet name', in the sense of "a name expressing fondness or familiarity".

The earliest attestation of the sense in English given by OED is from 1807 (in All the Talents, by Eaton Stannard Barrett). However, somewhat earlier attestations can be found in the 1803 Irish A Report of the Proceedings in Cases of High Treason, by William Ridgeway,

Q. Had they any pet name for you, such as a ring dropper?

and in the 1804 translation of Confessions in Elysium from the German of Christopher Martin Wieland by John Battersby Elrington,

...her nurse having given her the pet name of Psyche.

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Possible evidence that it might have started (or at least was used) as an abbreviation of Petitioner Name.

According to Google Books, Volume 52 of "Journals of the House of Lords, Beginning Anno Primo Henrici Octavi" has, on page 652, an entry that appears to be from 29th January 1697 (during the reign of William III).

The image shown shows only part of a two-column layout and is not particularly clear in places; from what I can make out, the left-hand column begins:

Die Sab'ti, 29th Januarij 1697.

The Order being read for considering the Petition of the Person who claymes the Title of Earl of Banbury;

The Petition to His Ma? and His Ma?? Re-

and, what appears to be the same entry, continues in the right-hand column:

...ment was given by the Rt Hono?? the L? Ceif Justice Holt & the rest of the Judges there in favour of y' Pet?? Name and Title; That your Petitioner stands likewise indicted by the Name of Charles Earl of Banbury for the same Offence, & that the same remains undetermined for the Reasons aforesaid, that by reason of the Premisses your Petr did suffer long Imprisonment and great Expences, and is still under the same Accusation by the Name of a Peer, and as such hath been...

It seems clear from the context that Pet?? Name is an abbreviation for Petitioner Name (where Pet appears to be followed by three super-scripted letters that I cannot fully determine – possibly shn).

For reference, the OCR results for this extract (shown on an earlier seach screen) were:

Manner aforesaid, & that therefore his Name was Ç ç Charles Earl of Banbury, to which your Ma" Attorney replyed the Dismission of the said Petition “ by the House of Peeres, that thereupon your Pet' “ demurr'd, & after many long Arguments Judg“ ment was given by the R' Hono's the Lo Chief “Justice Holt & the rest of the Judges there in “ favour of y' Pet” Name and Title; That your “ Petitioner stands likewise indicted by the Name “ of Charles Earl of Banbury for the same Offence, ...

  • Many such writing abbreviations were in use in the days when all documents had to be written by hand. I doubt that this is of any relevance to nicknames being known as 'pet names'. – Kate Bunting Apr 18 '18 at 17:04

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