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Name of the Father: Why is it Father's Day not Dad's Day?


Unlike Mother’s Day, one thing we can be fairly sure about is that Father’s Day celebrations in the UK seem to have originated exclusively in the USA.

St Joseph is believed to be Jesus’ earthly dad and celebrations for the Feast of St Joseph date back to the Middle Ages. They continue to be held annually on 19th March, essentially making it ‘Father’s Day’ for Catholics. However, that’s as far as the tradition seems to go and it doesn’t appear to have spread outside of Catholicism.

There seem to be two sources cited for the origins of our modern Father’s Day: the first is credited to Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington who was raised by her father after her mother died giving birth to one of her five siblings. Sonora was inspired by a Mother’s Day sermon and took her idea of an official Father’s Day to the ministerial authorities. She proposed to make the third Sunday in June a day to honour fathers.

The second source pre-dates the former by a year and was inspired by the Monongah Mine Disaster in which as many as 500 men were killed by a mine explosion on 6th December 1907. The disaster, which is widely regarded as the worst mining accident in US history, prompted Grace Golden Clayton, a minister’s daughter, to hold a memorial service for all the men and fathers that had been killed. But this was a one-off event and wasn’t picked up nationally.

Sonora was determined to make Fater’s Day a nationally recognised occasion and actively promoted her event with donations to disabled dads. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson himself observed Sonora’s Father’s Day but it was a long time before the event was made official in the USA. By the time Congress passed an act to make Father’s Day a national holiday in 1972, Sonora was 90 years old.

However, in the UK, Sonora’s third Sunday in June version of Father’s Day was becoming a thing as early as World War II. This was a time when many fathers were absent for extended periods from the family home and some were destined to never return at all.

Father’s Day spread further than just the UK and it's now recognised in Argentina, Canada, France, Greece, India, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, and Venezuela. But why is it ‘Father’s Day’ as opposed to ‘Dad’s Day’?

Firstly, ‘father’ is the only word that correctly describes the biological male parent. The word 'father' comes from 'fæder,' an Old English word that literally means, ‘he who begets a child’. All of the other incarnations of the male parent denote a multitude of practical and emotional roles. For example, a dad can be actively present in helping to raise a child, but a father just has to contribute biologically. The only caveat to the above is the use of ‘Father’ in Christianity. Here ‘Father’ can be God or the name given to an ordained minister who is permitted to perform rites and administer sacraments.

There is also a good argument that the word ‘father’ has more formal connotations too. The familiar greeting card quote, ‘Any man can become a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad’, puts this into some sort of practice. Dads are generally thought of as present, hands-on and supportive, whereas fathers can have these qualities, but they might further imply stringency or absenteeism.

In the UK, there may well be an element of class/established traditions attached as well, in addition to generational factors, that have a bearing on whether you call your male parent ‘father’ or ‘dad’.

The ancient Greeks had one word for ‘father’ and two for ‘daddy’ - patér (father), táta (daddy) and páppa (daddy). When we consider the equivalent word for daddy in other countries, we can see similar similarities to the Greek model. ‘Papa’ is preferred in France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain, and Sweden and ‘baba’ is common in China, Greece, Indonesia, the Middle East, Nepal and Turkey.

In the UK the first word a child utters is far more likely to be ‘dada’ than ‘mama’, and that’s not because a baby finds it easier to say. In fact, it’s harder for babies to say the ‘d’ sound than the ‘m’ sound, and we can apply the same theory to both the ‘p’ in papa and ‘b’ in baba. No offence, mum, the baby sees itself as a part of you and dad as a separate, entity with whom they first identify.

Later on in the child’s life, the dad will take on a number of important roles - from a clown to councillor - in the winding journey from infant to adult and beyond. Perhaps that’s the fundamental difference between a father and a dad: the father’s connection with his child is ultimately biological, but the dad is there for the long haul.