The Grammarphobia Blog

Mummy dearest

Q: I would like to know when “mummy,” as in “mother,” came into use in the US. I believe it originated in the UK. It does not seem to be used much anymore in the states and has been replaced by “mom” or “mommy.”

A: The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary to “mummy” as an informal term for “mother” is from The Fortunate Shepherdess, a 1768 “pastoral tale” by the Scottish poet Alexander Ross:

Had I but been sae wysse
As hae laid up auld mummy’s gueed advice,
Frae this mischance,
I meith hae kept me free.

The OED says “mummy” in this sense may be a variant of “mammy” or “mum,” two informal words for mother that date from the 16th century.

The first OED citation for “mommy,” which is described as another possible variant of “mammy,” is from an 1848 work by the English poet Horace Smith:

“Bees that a hawk? – What say ye, Tommy?”
“Naw that it baint, I’m certain, Mommy.”

The first example of “mommy” in an American publication is from an 1858 issue of the weekly Pennsylvania Dutchman:

All my soul is in delight
When mommy fixes crout just right.

The OED, in its entry for this sense of “mummy,” notes that “mommy” is “commoner in U.S. usage.” In the dictionary’s “mommy” entry, it describes the term as “chiefly N. Amer.

It’s hard to say for sure when “mummy” came into use in the United States as a colloquial term for mother.

The earliest reference in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from 1915: “Any kind Mummy likes; that’s the most [= usual] kind I gets.”

DARE says the usage has been chiefly seen in the US in New England and western Pennsylvania.

Infants use quite similar colloquial words for “mother” in many parts of the world. For example, “mama” (rendered in various spellings) can be heard from the mouths of babes in China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Spain, and many other places.

Three linguists – Ralph A. Papen, Nancy J. Frishberg, and Geoffrey Sampson – discuss this on the Linguist List, an online forum for the exchange of information on linguistics.

Papen notes that the first consonants babies produce in most languages are labials (those involving the lips) like “m,” “p,” and “b,” while the first vowels are posterior ones (produced with the tongue toward the back of the mouth) like “a.”

“Generally, babies tend to produce Consonant + vowel syllables,” Papen says on the website’s Ask a Linguist feature. “If you combine these sounds, what you get is ma-ma, pa-pa, ba-ba, etc. Bingo!”

Frishberg adds that “human babies develop at roughly the same timetable everywhere, and the sounds in the baby words (and sometimes also the adult term) for mother correspond to the sounds that are earliest controllable by baby articulators.”

Sampson says it’s plausible that babies make these early sounds “because of their inherent simplicity of production, and that proud parents have fastened on these as the babies’ attempts to address them.”

“So similar words show up as the informal terms for ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ all over the world – sometimes switched round, and not always identical, but with the striking similarities,” he adds.

I suspect that many of the variations (“mommy” vs. “mummy,” for example) have developed as adults in different parts of the world reinforced or edited those early baby sounds to fit their idea of what a mom should be called.

I’m sorry I can’t be more definite, but I hope this helps.

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