Thursday, March 31, 2016



A while 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:

Welsh: mam
French: maman
German: muhme
Greek: mamme
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
German: vater
Gothic: atta
Old Irish: athir
Old Persian: pita
Sanskrit: pitar
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. Americans shortened papa to pop in 1838.

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,, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.


  1. Thank you, Charlie! That is so much fun and really cool info. And fascinating. Thank you so much.

    1. And thanks back to you for inspiring a post. Coming up with a subject every week for four years, one truly appreciates friends who pitch in with suggestions.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Charlie. Loved this post. You are a word "Vater" to us all. :)

    1. Hey Paul -- good to hear from you. If we go with the Dutch that would make me a Vader -- Word Vader, Darth's unassuming brother!

  3. So pita bread is "father" bread? Hmmm.

    1. Hey Mary Ann -- Thanks for popping by. Surprisingly, pita (as in bread) comes from another source -- from Modern Hebrew "pita" or Modern Greek "petta" meaning "bread," perhaps from Greek "peptos" meaning "cooked." Life is funny.

  4. Interesting how all those languages had such similar "mommy" words but such different "daddy" words. And interesting that ma is a suckling sound. Seems right. I love Muz and Puz. We were not anywhere near that creative in my family.

    1. Hi Christine - I must admit, I'm quite fond of Muz & Puz myself. Thanks for coming by.

  5. Fun post! I just became a grandma for the first time. We are having a debate about my grandmother name. I want to be Glammy but my kids are not too excited about that title. I'd love to see grandmother and greandfather in different languages. Are they similar to mother and father?