“Mama” and “dada” are the sweetest of all words to new parents. These words are also among the first spoken by a baby, but why, and why do we end up calling our parents mom and dad? To find the answer, we can look at linguistics, the scientific development of language in humans. We can also look at different cultures and what words are used to denote parents.
Eagerly waiting for that magical moment when baby calls them by name, parents are often surprised when the first word is “dada”. “Mama” is said very soon afterwards. The use of separate words for mom and dad is significant because it shows the baby is starting to recognize separate, permanent objects. We can also note that “dada” sounds very similar to “dad” and “mama” sounds very similar to the word “mom”.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “dad” as “the male parent” but says little about its etymology. The word for dad can be traced back to the mid-sixteenth century, but there are no records showing the exact time or place the word “dad” was used. Some think the word, “dad”, originated much sooner than this, and come from the first syllables said by babies. It is interesting to note that every culture has its own word for dad, some of which are similar to “dada”.
The earliest use of” mom” can be traced to the nineteenth century, but again there are no records showing the exact place or time “mom” was first used as the name for a female parent. According to the dictionary, the Latin root “matr” means “mother,” but this sounds nothing like “mom”. “Mom”, as the name for a female parent, is believed to have originated from the English word “mamma” which was used beginning in the 1500’s. and meant “breast”. The word, “mamma” can be seen in “mammary” which is related to the female mammary glands in mammals that produce milk to feed their young. Connecting “mamma” to a female parent makes perfect sense in this context. What started off as “Mamma” was shortened. Other similar words include mama, mummy, mum, mommy, and finally mom.
Every language has words for mom and dad.
Words for Dad
• Spanish, Latin, Greek, Polish: tata
• Yiddish: tateh
• Welsh: tad
• Romanian: taica
• Irish: daid
Words for Mom
• Polish, Spanish, Slovak, Romanian, Russian: Mama
• Swedish, Icelandic, Norwegian: Mamma
• Welsh: Mam
• Hindu, Afrikaans: Ma
• Arabic: Ahm
Children all over the world have special names they call their parents, rather than calling them by their first names. Some believe parents actually mimicked their babies’ first sounds and started calling themselves mom and dad to their children. It is fascinating that words similar to “mom” and “dad” appear in almost all languages, and that the similarity to the word for “mom” is almost universal worldwide, although there are more variations for the word “dad”. Etymologists don’t have the full story, but perhaps one day we’ll know exactly why we call our parents “mom” and “dad”.