The pookie effect: Why we can't resist a cringey pet name

a man and woman smiling
The psychology behind pet names Alina Rudya/Bell Collective

“Date night tonight and pookie is looking absolutely fire.” If you’ve opened TikTok in the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard the name pookie. Probably several times. The hashtag #pookie currently has 317.2K posts and 4.9B views. But who is pookie? And why are we all so obsessed?

The pookie phenomenon started with married couple Campbell and Jett Puckett from Georgia, USA posting videos showing off their date night outfits. So far, so normal for TikTok, except what makes these videos different is Jett’s enthusiasm in hyping his wife, audibly calling her “pookie” as she tries on various ‘fits. “European Snow Princess pookie is looking absolutely fire today,” he says in one video where the couple are on a skiing holiday in Italy. “Good lord babe. I love the all-black look,” he comments in another while Campbell poses for the camera.

The couple’s viral fame is, in part, thanks to this slightly cringey nickname Jett has for his wife. In fact, the top video for #pookie is a parody of the couple’s outfit videos by comedian Jessie Lee, in which Lee dressed as Jet, compliments a friend dressed as pookie in increasingly outrageous ways, before revealing he has brought her the continent of Australia as a gift. But, despite those who might poke fun at the couple’s terms of endearment, a lot of commenters seem to want their own hype man and a pet name of their own. “God I wanna be someone’s pookie,” says one commenter on the couple’s pinned video. “If it ain’t like this I SIMPLY DON’T WANT IT. POOKIE SUPREMACY 👑👑👑,” reads another.

Pet names are, of course, nothing new. And while we may not be willing to publicly admit it, many of us will have used them, been the recipient of them and perhaps even secretly staned them from afar (Mr Big calling Carrie kid? Infantilising, yes, but also, kinda romantic?). They’re also a mainstay of pretty much every pop song you’ve ever heard. So much so that there’s even a subgenre of pop all about not wanting to be called by cutesy moniker, like Madison Avenue’s Don’t Call Me Baby. We can definitely understand why a woman - especially those who date men - might not want to be infantilised by their male partner, but it turns out the reason we do it might be key to how we form attachments.

So why then do pet names make us feel special in relationships, even if they are a bit, well, cringe and possibly politically contentious? According to Cate Campbell, a sex and relationship therapist and accredited member BACP, it all comes down to attachment and recreating the sense of safety we crave from our parents.

“The terms of endearment and pet names used by parents and other attachment figures with young children are soothing and often unique to that relationship. It’s hardly surprising, then, that we find ourselves using pet names and baby talk when we’re in a close relationship as adults. Though this is usually an unconscious response, it nonetheless marks the relationship as special and is consequently reassuring,” she explains.

These nicknames also help build bonds between couples by becoming part of their private language, says private practice psychotherapist Emily Mendez. “Plus, these cuddly nicknames often bring back those butterflies-in-your-stomach feelings from the early days of first getting to know each other.” she adds.

plus size young woman in home bedroom on bed with phone woman covering her eyes with her hand
Natalia Lebedinskaia

So far, so cute tbh. So then why do we feel so icky when we hear other people calling their SO by a cutesy nickname? When we hear someone being called “pookie” or any other embarrassing nickname, like “baby”, “pumpkin” or “boo” there’s a part of us that feels like we’re intruding on an intimacy that we shouldn’t be privy to, explains Campbell. It can also trigger memories of being spoken to as a child, which as an adult, can be kinda mortifying and infantilising. “Because most baby talk happens before we can speak for ourselves, the memory is in our bodies and surfaces as a warm response when we remember our own experience (or when our bodies do) and as a cringey response when we feel we’re eavesdropping on something personal,” she says.

So if seeing the Pucketts on your FYP makes you feel just a little bit nails-on-a-chalkboard, that could be just your internal sense of adult rebellion or ingrained feelings about your childhood bubbling to the surface. This is all starting to feel a bit Fruedian, isn't it?

But there’s a satisfaction we all experience from feeling like we can be vulnerable with our partners. And while some of us might perceive this vulnerability as cute in others, and some of us might see it as well, a bit gross, there’s no right or wrong way to refer to someone you care about (aside from in abusive terms, of course). So, try not to think too deeply about it the next time your partner calls you “baby”, and if you want to be a “pookie”, well, that’s fine too. No judgement here, folks.

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