Any one of these endearments that has the letter u in it, I said to A recently, is gonna be kind of dirty. And this is true. The letter u ends up in lots of words that can cause a sweet little poem to take a piratical turn. Or sinister, maybe, or just gloomy. In the case of sugar plum, for instance, pus, glum, slump.
And then there’s surl, the only semi-made-up word I have allowed myself to use thus far. It came up in the anagram surl gap um, if I am remembering correctly, or maybe it was surl map ug (is ug a word? I can’t remember. But it sure is in the pirate camp).
In my mind, it was a short hop from surly to surl, which seemed like a more accurate way to say surliness. More like stuff, like a substance, than a quality. And this seemed useful. My Webster’s Collegiate does not have an entry for it. I had never had occasion to look up surly before, though, and this was surprising: its root is sir, as in sirly. Oh, that old i/u connection, so weird, so counterintuitive—except when we think of certain words. Which brings us back to dirty—it’s that u quality that makes it work so well as a word, and I think it’s why dirty came to my mind to describe the aspect a u can lend to an endearment. Lucky sugar plum also has an a in it to brighten it up, to open it.
Also: my mother used to call me “sugar plum.”