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I speak to my little son in English. In my native language we have got many words of endearment which mean a child who misbehaves in a playful way.

I am interested what words/phrases native speakers use for conveying the same idea.

I have tried to find them in English (mostly, BrE).

The variants I have found are: A mischief/or a mischievous child (This one seems the most appropriate according to the definition)

A brat(this seems offensive)

A varmint

A rascal

And adjectives: naughty, wayward, impish, playful.

I’m mostly interested in a noun to be able to use constructions as:

You are a little mischief.

But also adjectives for this type of sentence: You are so naughty.

I found many examples in the context with words naughty, mischief and rascal.

Though, I feel lot of doubts about other words. I do not want to sound offensive or rude. Could you, please, tell what words/phrases do you use and which of the words above are appropriate in the context?

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    You are a little mischievous. That's the adjective. naughty is an adjective while mischief is a noun. [I'm doubtful about]. There's also the PC: to misbehave. Parents do say: Stop acting like a brat.
    – Lambie
    Apr 13 at 19:49
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    May I ask what is your native language with many words of endearment which mean a child who misbehaves in a playful way? Apr 15 at 6:08
  • Combining any of the labels with "little" will often make it sound less harsh. "You little rascal!" Is exactly what a grandmother would say before cuddling her 4-year-old who had his fingers in the marmalade jar. By the way: Perhaps it's just me but "You are so naughty!" evokes an image of sexual teasing between adults for me. Apr 15 at 19:25
  • It’s Russian. I can easily enumerate 10 words, half of them are more common, though the other half is used rather frequently and well understood by the natives. @EndAnti-SemiticHate
    – Kate
    Apr 15 at 20:32
  • Thank you all very much for your detailed responses! I will definitely use this information and given ideas.
    – Kate
    Apr 15 at 20:42

7 Answers 7

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This is enormously family dependent, and rapidly changing. Words like "scamp" or "rapscallion" or "scalliwag" now seem rather dated. "Cheeky monkey" seemed common enough 10 years ago, but may already be out of date. Words like "blighter" (or "brat") can have a wide range of senses from nasty to endearing.

The trouble is that you, as a non-native speaker, will find it hard to be taken casually. If you use a word like "blighter" it would sound artificial and strained.

But your son doesn't care. We used to call our son "Mr Bong Bong" if he did something silly (which was often). Is that "English"? I'm pretty sure that nobody else uses this.

There is a strange tension in your request. You want it use formally correct informal language. I don't know if this is possible to pull of.

My advice would be to "code-switch". If "Gaki" is a word meaning a naughty child, just "borrow" the word into your English (this is totally valid, by the way, native speakers borrow words from all sorts of places, bilingual kids especially)

Ohh you silly gaki, you've got trousers muddy again!.

This won't hurt his learning of English. He will just be a little be more bilingual.

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    I think scallywag was already hopelessly out of date when my nan used it back in the 50s. Pickle still does it for me, though Apr 13 at 23:05
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    "Borrow?" I think that James Nicoll was a bit more on the nose: "We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.""
    – cjs
    Apr 14 at 8:15
  • "Cheeky monkey" is very British, I believe. Craig Ferguson used to use the term frequently when he hosted The Late Late Show, but I've never heard an American say it.
    – Barmar
    Apr 15 at 6:31
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    Also note that while referring to your own children as little monkeys is generally okay ("cheeky monkey" is not an American usage, but "monkey" alone is fairly common in the U.S.), it's fraught for other people's kids. If you're in the U.S. at least, thanks to a history of racism, it's a bad idea to refer to other people's children as such when there is even the slightest chance they have African ancestry (referring to people of sub-Saharan African descent as apes/monkeys has been a racist favorite for a long time, to the point where it's an ethnic slur in the wrong context). Apr 15 at 14:24
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Out of those rascal is common enough to be understood (if still a little old-fashioned) and the most likely to be affectionate out of context.

Most of those words are usually used to refer to adults in their literal meaning (and are pretty much obsolete in that sense), so it's fairly obvious that you using them towards a kid is playful. But brat is specifically used to negatively refer to children, and is in wide usage today, so it might not come off quite as endearing.

And while sources differ on varmint, it's uncomfortably close in both meaning and spelling to vermin - and you really, really don't want your kid to pick it up and start calling people that.

I'd also throw in:

  • devil - fairly common today and fairly playful
  • scoundrel - it can be a bit strong, but is probably too old fashioned to be taken seriously; usually carries a bit of an implication of cheating/cunning

Or just make something up. Call him a little chilli pepper, or a good-for-nothing buccaneer. It's not like he knows any of those words and their cultural implications - he's going to pick up the meaning from your tone of voice and context, and as long as you don't teach him anything you wouldn't want him to go around calling people, by the time he actually learns what those words mean outside of your relationship it's probably going to be a funny childhood memory.

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    @Mari-LouA Hm... I was sure I even had a specific example in mind, but now I can't find it for the life of me. I've excluded it. Apr 14 at 11:35
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Some possibilities would be "scamp" or "terror".

Note, phrases like this would usually be used as an exclamation, rather than as full sentences:

You little scamp!

You terror!

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    "scamp" works for me, but not "terror"#
    – James K
    Apr 13 at 21:06
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    Terror absolutely works in my books. As does Hellspawn, Demon, Hellion, Little Sh1t, etc. While some of these can be taken as down right derogatory, and mean, it really is dependent on context. Know your environment, and deliver it in the right tonality. Does not really matter too much what the word you use is if you are delivering it the wrong tone.
    – Forward Ed
    Apr 14 at 4:26
  • You can't call you own child "hellspawn", not unless...
    – TimR
    Apr 14 at 12:12
  • "Hellspawn, Demon, Hellion, Little Sh1t" These could not be used by a learner as a "term of endearment"
    – James K
    Apr 14 at 20:49
  • +1 for 'terror', usually with 'you little' on the front. And when he's driven his firetruck through the wooden block tower his sister spent the last half hour building, it is entirely appropriate.
    – mcalex
    Apr 16 at 12:43
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I used to read and hear imp, it sounds almost cute but perhaps it's not so common nowadays.

  • She's [a bit of] an imp
    This tells the listener that the small child sometimes misbehaves.

I believe parents in the US tend to say "sweetie", "sweetie pie", "honey" or "buddy" for their children.

And my intuition is British parents either abbreviate their child's first name or use a diminutive:
Michael--> Mike, Mikey; John--> Johnny; Jennifer --> Jenny, Jen; Samantha/ Samuel --> Sammy --> Sam

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  • imp seems to show up in every-other NYT crossword puzzle.
    – TimR
    Apr 14 at 12:09
  • E.g. Friday, 12 April 2024, clue #11 across, "No angels". [ ][ ][ ][ ] But you're right about it not being used much in the playground nowadays. "You little imp!" would mark the speaker as a foreigner who'd learned English from a textbook written in 1950.
    – TimR
    Apr 14 at 12:18
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    The terms you ascribe to US parents are indeed all terms of endearment, and in current use, but they are not used like "you little imp", as an endearment when the child is misbehaving in a playful manner.
    – TimR
    Apr 14 at 12:26
  • @TimR I think the spontaneous response when you see your small child scribbling on the newly decorated or painted wall is just to scream out their first name. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 14 at 12:40
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    Yes, but that screamed out name is not a term of endearment, and the child in your example is not misbehaving playfully but like a juvenile delinquent. That kid is headed to Juvie ;-)
    – TimR
    Apr 14 at 13:46
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It seems to be BrE-specific, but the first word that came to mind for me was "tyke". From Cambridge dictionary:

a child who behaves badly in a way that is funny rather than serious

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  • I have only heard tykes used in British English but Lois Lowry an American science fiction author used the term as a future society's word for small children. Apr 15 at 10:20
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    In American English, the term strikes me as totally neutral, just referring to a small child in any capacity. There's a brand of children's toys called "Little Tikes", I don't think they're implying anything about your kid's behavior. Apr 15 at 15:15
  • There is a post over in Literature about the specific use I remember by Lois Lowry but they too conclude that tyke for Americans just means any small child. literature.stackexchange.com/questions/19149/… Apr 16 at 15:09
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A pretty non offensive, endearing way to refer to a misbehaving child is to replace their name with 'Trouble'. You can also use it when they are not misbehaving at the moment but often tend to.

I once used this on meeting a family for the first time after lockdown. Their youngest child greeted me enthusiastically but I could not at that moment recall her name. So I called her Trouble and she was happy with that.

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I find that English, unfortunately, does not have a great number of words to suit this particular purpose. Most of them can have very negative connotations, especially if heard by others who do not understand the context.

One of the softest words to use for such a situation is "silly", as in "you are acting so silly right now". To add emphasis, you can use the word like this: "you are acting incredibly silly right now". If one intends to be a bit chiding and judgmental, one can use: "you are acting ridiculously silly right now" (although this is not a way of parenting I recommend).

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