women know the way to rear up children (to be just), they know a simple, merry tender knack of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes, and stringing pretty words that make no sense, and kissing full sense into empty words. . . --Elisabeth Barrett Browning

A few weeks ago as I scooped Sam out of his crib, these words, to my astonishment, came tumbling out of my mouth: "How's my little flour tortilla?"

I have no idea what possessed me to call him a flour tortilla. I do know that I spoke the words with endearment, and that the phrase had almost a lilting sound to it. Best of all, Sam didn't register any objection.

Since that day, I've become increasingly more aware of the many empty words that mothers "kiss full sense into." Is there an adult alive who wasn't called at least one endearing name besides what's recorded on the birth certificate?

Our 3-month-old baby responds to all kinds of verbal affection -- the sillier, the better. Depending upon his behavior and my mood, Sam can be "such a monkey" or "such a dickens." And he has responded cheerfully to being called: Doll Baby, Bugs Bunny, Superman, Sam, Honey Bird, Peanut-butter Cup, Pumpkin, Sweetie Pie, and Dumpling.

(note the reference to desserts, I suppose that babies with thin mothers are called "little leafs" and "cutie celery sticks.")

My husband once said "Hi Tiger!" to our son, but because we have a stupid 15-pound tomcat named Tiger (who knows his name), the greeting could be highly confusing in a couple years. "Squirt" and "Pal" have been substituted.

As the months roll by, I realize that this pleasant verbal affection must gradually be discontinued, or at least moderated. Any American male older than 8 months who is called "Sweetie Pie" by his mother is probably a prime candidate for psychiatric therapy before he's 30.

(the sensitivity of children was indelibly impressed upon me a couple years ago when I was playing with a 3-year-old. He had done some random gymnastic movement that particularly delighted me, so I spontaneously hugged him and exclaimed, "Oh, you little monkey!" To my surprise, he bolted out of my arms looking hurt and confused and said soberly, "I'm not a monkey. I'm a BOY.")

Fortunately, the words of affection that we so effortlessly shower on babies have a chance of being resurrected one more time in life -- during courtship. Lauren Becall didn't object to being called "Baby" at age 19, and neither did I.

Shortly before my husband and I were married, he whispered to me that I was his "petit chou chou." petit chou chou! Nobody, under any circumstances, had ever called me petite! This man was worth listening to. The endearment of the phrase didn't diminish one whit when I learned the translation: little cabbage head.

So I'm a little cabbage head, and I now have a little flour tortilla to cuddle . . . full sense in empty words.