PEOPLE There are a zillion affectionate phrases we use for those closest to us: a child or a lover. No matter what language we speak or culture we come from, they can be broadly categorised into two: the sweet and the valuable

I heard, on an FM channel, an invitation to enter a slogan contest for couples. The winners get lakhs worth of diamond jewellery for sending in rhyming couplets about their relationship. Here are a couple of samples they announced: If I'm his bag he's my slate; If I'm her pen she's my ink. She's my ink? I'm his bag? Where oh where has romance fled? I'm sure anyone with half a brain could come up with far wittier, sexier lines.

Just for fun, let us play around with terms of endearment. Apart from sweetheart and darling translated into every known language, there are a zillion affectionate phrases we use for those closest to us: a child or a lover. No matter what language we speak or culture we come from, they can be broadly categorised into two: the sweet and the valuable. To name some in English: candy, sugarplum, honeybunch. In desi-speak: my sugar, my gold, my pearl.

If you were French, though, the words you would call your lover would get you slapped in most other countries. You might have seen, in those sub-titled films, the amorous hero tenderly referring to his lady-love as his little pig or his little cabbage. Flea, quail, otter, egg and bat (the mammal, I presume) are some other unlikely expressions of Gallic ardour. The prefix ‘ little' appears to soften the blow and turn a potential insult into a compliment. “My little flea” supposedly makes the woman sound cute rather than a bloodsucking pest.

You must have noticed that I said child or lover, and excluded friend. Friends are different. Friends you oftentimes abuse to show your affection: nut, idiot, bastard or worse. Doing the same to your child or lover spells certain disaster. You take liberties with a close friend because you need not worry about issues of ego or self-esteem. A friend is an equal in a way that your child or, yes, even your lover isn't, because the one you love is usually superior to you, although each in a loving pair considers the other superior and therefore it all evens out quite nicely. If ever you lapse into a darling or a sweetheart with a friend it's usually to show your exasperation. The difference lies in the intonation.

Why do I speak of child and lover in the same breath? Because the fond phrases with which we address them are remarkably similar. Of course there are sexualised phrases you might use for a lover that would be inappropriate for a child. But to treat your lover like a child is not unusual. Baby: where does that come from? As lovers we sometimes infantilise each other — not all the time or we'd remain perpetually in Neverland, like Michael Jackson. Hush, we dare not mention the deeply personal nonsense-words spoken through clenched teeth and pursed lips. They're not meant for anyone's ears but the intended. Too embarrassing for words.

Now, to go back to the ‘valuable' category, gold and pearl (in translation) are somehow inoffensive, whereas any other object with a currency value attached would sound like a jibe. For instance, imagine yourself cooing “my two-lakh-rupee diamonds, my luxury villa, my high-performance sports car, my 5 BHK with electrified fence”. Tender emotions cannot be paired with a price tag. “I value our relationship” is actually a dubious tribute. But sometimes when I think of the rising cost of commodities I wonder if we should invent fond phrases to match. When I buy limes at Rs 5 each and mangoes for Rs 150 a kilo I begin to wonder if “my lime” or “my Imam Pasand” would be legitimate expressions of love. Limes and lemons do not have positive connotations: bitterness, sourness, deceit (if you recall the old Trini Lopez song). How about “my seer fish”? Er, that's even worse, I suspect. Odorous and glassy-eyed, not a very appealing image. But have you checked its price lately? It's phenomenal. I think we should seriously consider its entry into the terminology of love.

What is precious is often priceless, which is why you might (in desi-speak) call your lover “my life”. He or she is also compared to body parts, to put it prosaically. My eye, my heart, and even (in Malayalam at least) my liver. Here I feel the feet are sadly devalued and not given their rightful due. Neither are hands, for that matter. You should be able to call your lover “my thumb” or “my big toe” because they are absolutely crucial to your dexterity and mobility.

So far we have dwelt on words that are spoken. With the written word, however, you can rise to heights of eloquence that would sound corny when voiced. Take our 1950s Hindi film lyrics and some of their intensely romantic outpourings. Would you be able to repeat them to your beloved with a straight face?

Some tips if you want to enter the couples couplet contest: Do an internet search for love poems and filch lines from the 70 million entries there. It's all been said before. Or, if you wish to be original, toy with sky and ocean, the eternal symbols of infinite love, or the elements earth, wind, fire, or the seasons...

“My summer rain” feels so right in this sultry weather. I offer you the phrase for free. If you win you can keep the diamonds.

(Send your feedback tockmeena@gmail.com)