Where Do the Words “Mom” and “Dad” Come From?

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Reader Jack writes in to say, “I can’t for the life of me figure out where the term ‘Dad’ or its similar cousins like ‘Daddy’ or ‘Dada’ come from. What’s the deal with “dad” and why has it become so prevalent in our society?”

“Dad” was first recorded in English sometime in the 1500s, but its ancestry isn’t clear. Even the Oxford English Dictionary throws its hands up and admits “of the actual origin we have no evidence.”

But, the OED continues, “the forms dada and tata, meaning ‘father,’ originating in infantile or childish speech, occur independently in many languages.” In other words, “dad” might come from baby talk. Jack had considered this, too, when he wrote in, but then thought that d sounds were not easy ones for babies to make. Both the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, however, say that sounds like ta, da, na, and la are easy for babies to make once some upper teeth come (these “dental consonant” sounds are made with the tongue against the teeth). So, it’s plausible that da originated as baby babble and entered adult vocabulary from there as "dad," but it's not a sure thing.

Jack didn’t ask about the origin of “mom” but I don’t think it would be fair to leave mothers out of the post. The answer here is largely the same as for “dad.” “Mom” is first recorded in the 1800s and probably originates as a shortened form of “mamma,” which appears in the 1550s. Ultimately, they both appear to come from baby talk. Linguist Roman Jakobson offers this more specific origin:

“Often the sucking activities of a child are accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother’s breast or to the feeding bottle and the mouth full. Later, this phonatory reaction to nursing is reproduced as an anticipatory signal at the mere sight of food and finally as a manifestation of a desire to eat, or more generally, as an expression of discontent and impatient longing for missing food or absent nurser, and any ungranted wish.”

When these mouth movements and murmurs are made without anything to suck on nearby, Jakobson thought, they come out as an m followed by a vowel sound, and may have eventually led to dear old “mom.”

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April 18, 2013 - 9:30am
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