Some time ago, fellow writer and friend Angela Russell asked where we get the words we use to label our parents. Since this is a family-friendly blog, I’ve stuck with traditional words, leaving out those terms of non-endearment that might be used by children under duress.
Mother comes from the Old English word, modor, which comes from Proto-Germanic. Chances are good mother was born of ma, that first sound many babies make (many etymologists associate ma with suckling), paired with –ther, known as a kinship suffix (sometimes showing up as –ter).
That ma sound gave us most our words for mother. It seems almost all Indo-European languages have some form of ma or mamma:
Persian, Russian, Lithuanian & others: mama
In 1844 in American English the word mommy grew out of mamma. And in 1867 mom was born of mommy. In Britain it seems mamma morphed first in to mummy in 1815, and then into mum by 1823.
And on to the dads.
In the 1200s the word sire appeared in English, meaning lord or liege. Within fifty years it came to also mean father.
The OId English word fæder came from Proto-Germanic and gave us our modern word father. Fæder ‘s original meanings included he who begets a child, nearest male relative, & supreme being. Other words that share father’s etymological lineage include:
Dutch: vader (the surname of the chap who said, "Luke, I am your father.")
Old Irish: athir
Old Persian: pita
Greek & Latin: pater
In multiple sources I find commentary that the word dad is thought to be “prehistoric” – far older than written records could possibly show. I am astounded to find no similar claims for mama, which forces me to question whether this mostly reflects solid research, or mostly reflects sexism. Hmmm. My musings notwithstanding, about 1500 the word daddy appeared.
The Old French word papa made its way into English in the 1680s. By 1838, Americans had shortened papa to pop.
Back in 1200 the term old man came to mean boss, father or husband, though it took until 1775 for old lady to come to mean mother or wife.
It was no surprise that I was unable to find the terms of endearment my sister & I used for our parents, Muz & Puz. This causes me to wonder whether other offspring labeled their parents in a similarly odd or unique fashion. Good readers, I’m hoping you’ll address these wonderings in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Dictionary.com, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.