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shameless pleading





Mommy, Mama, Mom, Daddy, Dada, Dad, Papa, Pappy, et alia

Anything but Meemaw is fine with me.

Dear Word Detective: I was born in Europe and grew up calling my parents “Mama” and “Papa.” In Canada, where I have lived since I was a teen, all my classmates and most kids grow up calling their fathers “Dad,” and my now-adult-friends’ babies are taught to say “Dada” also. I never paid much attention before but recently I noticed that in some older English books (like by Jane Austen) children do call their fathers “Papa.” Do you know why and when English speakers decided to veer away from calling fathers “Papa”? Is this a Europe vs. North America thing? — Diana.

Huh. I was born in New Jersey and grew up calling my parents Vito and Estelle. Just kidding, except that I really was born in New Jersey, so I’m allowed to joke about it. But this is a fascinating question; so fascinating that I’m going to “answer” it even though I don’t really have a slam-dunk definitive answer to give you. In my case, I grew up calling my parents “Daddy” and “Mommy” until I became a teenager, when I switched to “Father” and “Mother,” at least when speaking of them in the third person. (What can I say? The New England Wasp Force was powerful in my neighborhood.) I’m pretty sure my older sisters stuck with “Daddy” and “Mommy,” but at least one of my older brothers used to refer to my father as “Pop” with an insouciance I envied. My mother loathed “Mom,” so no one used it. Our own grown son calls us “Dad” and “Mom,” which is just fine with me.

The first thing to note about “Mommy,” “Mama,” “Mom,” “Daddy,” “Dada,” “Dad,” “Papa,” “Pappy” and all the rest of such familiar forms is that none of them actually “mean” anything beyond “Mother” or “Father.” Yes, similar forms can be found in the ancient roots of language, but they didn’t mean anything back then, either. But wait, it gets weirder. Words similar to “Mama” and “Papa,” with minor variations, pop up in many widely different languages (though in some languages the terms are reversed or rearranged somewhat, e.g., “father” is “mama” in Georgian, while “mother” is “deda” and “papa” means “grandfather”).

Linguists believe that the explanation for the popularity of this small set of words serving as familiar terms for “mother” and “father” lies not in the past of the words themselves, but in how infant humans acquire language. The first vocal efforts of a baby almost always involve the sounds easiest to make: the “bilabials” p, b, and m, repeated, as babies often do. The parents, witnessing the child’s first forays into vocalization (beyond screaming and gurgling), modestly assume that the kid is addressing them by name. Lather, rinse, repeat a few billion times, and you’ve got an entire planet using variations on “Mama” and “Papa.” The Latin “mater” (mother) and “pater” (father), and, to go way back, the Indo-European roots that produced them, almost certainly spring from this same source. Of course, the interpretation by the parents of the child’s noises as a form of personal address is a classic case of “confirmation bias,” and the infant cannot possibly know that “Mama” means “Mother” (or whatever the local custom is). But he or she soon will.

The specific form “Papa” was introduced into English from French in the 17th century, and was used by adults primarily in the social elite as well as by their children. Use of the term in Britain has actually been falling since the mid-19th century, and the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “Papa” today is largely a North American usage (in which case, it must be nearly extinct among English-speakers). The “native” English form has always been “Dad/Daddy/Dada,” and I’d be willing to bet it outranks “Papa” in North America today by a country mile.

To the extent that Europeans speaking English are influenced by other languages, I think that the greater traditional popularity of “Papa” in French, Italian, etc., is the reason you may have heard it more over there. The relative lack of traction of “Papa” in North America may also be partly due to immigrants in the 20th century wishing to shed the “old ways” and get with the “Daddy and Mommy” pattern of the New World.

6 comments to Mommy, Mama, Mom, Daddy, Dada, Dad, Papa, Pappy, et alia

  • Ros Williams

    Pa and ma were used by southerners in America during colonial times.

    • Emily

      Ma is still used here in Boston regularly, the closer you are in Boston the more you will hear it. It’s because of the vast Italians that lived here and soon it just spread.

      Fathers we call dad or pop, but it’s always “ma” in a Boston household.

  • Paul

    There is, to my knowledge, very considerable diversity in the words used for parents (and grandparents) within the UK. Some of that diversity is class related, some regionally based but much, I suspect is simply variation passed down through family lines. One of the things that gets negotiated in the course of a marriage is which words to use (as do, for instance, which particular bits of the respective partners’ Christmas traditions to adopt). As a detailed observation though I have never heard a British person say “mom”; in the UK is it “mum” (or “mummy” if you are young or posh). BTW the correct etiquette in speaking to the Queen is to call her “Ma’am”….pronounced (roughly) “mum”.

  • David

    I call my parents Mother and Father

  • Jake

    You may find this google books ngram graph interesting.
    It shows that Ma, Pa and Papa was the most common usage for
    the 18th and 19th century.

    The quite long link is below:

  • Melissa Perry

    My father was the son of Irish immigrants. Raised just outside of Pittsburgh. He called his parents Mother & Father. I can only imagine he started out with Mama & Daduh! My mother was born in Corpus Christi TX from parents who met in Oklahoma before it was a state. My Granny was half Cheyenne Indian & half James – cousin of Frank & Jesse. Her mother died in childbirth & I never heard what she called her. Her father married a lovely woman who saw to it that she & brother were brought up in a genteel way. I only heard that she was taught to say Mother & Father.

    I ended up in Atlanta when I was 18 months old. Said Mommy & Daddy till I was a teen, then it was Mom & Dad.

    I called Mom’s Mom Granny. (Her Dad died when she was 14.) My Irish grandparents were Gramma & Dad. He died while I was a little kid. So Granny & Gramma worked just fine.

    My Mom didn’t want to be called Granny. So all my kids called her Nana. My step-father was called Dad, too. When I had a grandchild I was called Nana & my husband was Papa. I even called him Papa when talking with kids. The oldest one knew my mother well & when asked what to call my Mom – I jokingly suggested ShaNana.

    It stuck! I don’t think she liked it but the other Grandmother wanted to be called Meemaw! Yuck. She had a German background. Who knows – but I have always thought it strange that going back 120 years that we all settled on Mom & Dad. My oldest daughter doesn’t seem to call me anything. But my son calls me Mommy when he calls me. My youngest is a daughter who settled on Mom.

    I think however we started language we called them by names we could pronounce. However, we all love each other.

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