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Mum, Mam, Mom: What do you call your mother?

Mum, Mam, Mom: What do you call your mother?

The word ‘mother’ has numerous derivations depending on your social background


It’s Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday, on Sunday, 19th March 2023, and already we’re on shaky ground. Which is correct? In some ways, both are right as both Mother’s Day/Mothering Sunday are a sort-of composite, although they have separate origins.

What we do know is that ‘Mother’s Day’ became an official US holiday in 1914 following some intense lobbying from Anna Jarvis of West Virginia, who felt that mothers should have their own celebration. In the US, this is celebrated on the second Sunday in May, whereas in the UK, Mothering Sunday, as it was originally known, is in March.

The British holiday arguably evolved from Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday, which allowed Christians a day off from the misery of Lent. In this Christian context, the ‘Mothering’ could be more inclined towards ‘mother church’ rather than a parent.

Where does ‘mother’ come from?

To answer the question, the word ‘mother’ is alleged to be one of the oldest words in the English language. It’s what is known as an ‘ultraconserved word’, which means that the word has not changed in 15,000 years and it’s one of only 23 words that claim similar provenance. Before you ask, no, ‘father’ doesn’t make the prestigious list.

According to The Oxford Dictionary, the modern word ‘mother’ is Germanic in origin. It derives from ‘moder’, which became ‘mutter’ in German and ‘mōdor’ in English. If we go further back the Germanic ‘moder’ comes from the Greek ‘mētēr’ (meaning womb) which in Latin became ‘māter’.

If that word seems familiar it’s because ‘mater’, an archaic word for ‘mother’, underpins many common English words associated with womanhood, such as ‘matriarchy’, ‘matron’ or ‘maternity’.

Does location or background have an effect what you call your mother?

Etymology aside, the word ‘mother’ has numerous derivations depending on your social background. However, the greatest variations aren’t based on socio/economic circumstances but rather location, especially when another language has attached itself to the modern Germanic model, Gaelic for example.

In Ireland, older versions of ‘mother’ are surprisingly varied: ‘muhman’, ‘mamman’, even ‘mang’ and ‘ama’. These days ‘mam’ or ‘ma’ are more common in the south and ‘mum’ tends to be preferred in the north.

Mum, mam or mom?

The most common difference occurs with one incarnation of mother and that’s the three-letter versions that are separated by a single vowel: 'mum', 'mam' or 'mom. Most of us will have picked up the US preference of ‘mom’, but they tend to pronounce it ‘marm’.

However, the phonetic ‘mom’ pronunciation and spelling are still common in the West Midlands. The rest of England has a tendency towards ‘mum’, though some areas in North England prefer ‘mam’, which is far more common in Wales and Scotland.

The Americans seldom pronounce ‘mom’ as its spelled, so why ‘mom’?

For a start, ‘mom’ or ‘mommy’ isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the United States. ‘Mama’ is common in the southern states and ‘mother’ more popular on the East Coast, but the spelling of ‘mom’ or ‘mommy’ prevails. Why this is the case is a little harder to ascertain.

Folk from the West Midlands claim that it was down to families migrating to the US and bringing their spelling of ‘mom’ with them. There may be some truth in this, but the original 17th century migrants were a mixture of Dutch (‘mamma’) and German (‘mutter’). British settlers arrived later and most of them didn’t come from the West Midlands, so it’s far from conclusive.

Did the Irish influence ‘mom’?

There may be another contender to the US spelling of mom as well. An archaic Irish version is ‘momo’, and it’s been estimated that nearly two million people emigrated to the United States between 1845 and 1852. That’s a quarter of the Irish population in just ten years. Today one-sixth of the US population claim to have Irish ancestors, so it’s possible that this could be the reason for ‘mom’.

Keeping it in the family

The above is all very well and good, but in reality, your personal preference for ‘mother’ will be based on your own family traditions. In all likelihood, it will have less to do with location or status and more to do with the literal mother tongue of your mother. Ultimately, what you call your mother is dictated to you by your parents.

Why is ‘Dada’ the first word?

According to academic research, in 900 babies aged 8 to 16 months from English, Cantonese, and Mandarin-speaking homes, ‘dada’ was the first word uttered by an infant. The same conclusion has been reached in dozens of other research cases too.

This is because, according to ideas first explored by eminent psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the baby sees the father as being separate from the mother with whom it identifies. But in a short period after, whether you like it or not, you’ll call your mother just how she likes it. Well, you know what they say, ‘mother knows best’.