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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.

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