Sometimes, my son really manages to stump me.
A few weeks ago we’re walking home from preschool, and he’s chattering on and telling me about his day. Then, out of nowhere, he asks me “why do we call dads ‘dad’?”
I’d… never thought about that. Ever. “I don’t know,” I admit. Then, I take a tack that I’m trying recently. “How do you think we can find out?”
“You can look it up!” he informs me happily, which then leads to a discussion about dictionaries and my realization that my son will probably never actually use a physical dictionary in his life.
My first stop, when dealing with word origins, is the Online Etymology Dictionary, which provides this information:
recorded from c. 1500, but probably much older, from child’s speech, nearly universal and probably prehistoric (compare Welsh tad, Irish daid, Czech, Latin, Greek tata, Lithuanian tete, Sanskrit tatah, all of the same meaning).
My standard pattern after this is to perform internet searches, but there was a significant lack of useful hits from the query “word origin of dad” or “etymology of dad”. Oh, I got any number of hits, but all of them ended up recycling the Online Etymology Dictionary above or refers to a single article from Mental Floss. This article speculates that the word actually derives from baby talk, since:
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.
Warning: Speculation Ahead!
So, da and ma and ta and the like are easy sounds to make. And, if you’ve ever spent any time around young babies, you know they like repeating sounds (“babababababa”). And parents are certainly prone to attaching meaning to those repeating sounds (“he said ‘dede’! That means he wants a drink!”). So, it’s certainly reasonable that way back at the dawn of human language, some parents decided that the baby saying ‘dada’ or ‘tata’ was calling for his father – and since we’re pattern-seeking creatures, once we decided that ‘dada’ or ‘tata’ meant ‘father’ we’d be prone to ignore the times the same sound was applied to the bug the child was eating. Then, since the father is responding to that sound, the baby (who is soaking up language at a fearsome pace) gets reinforcement on calling the father ‘dada’. Three hundred thousand years and more later, some variation of the sound ‘dada’ is ingrained in human language everywhere.
Can I prove this? No. But it seems to fit the evidence, and so I’m willing to put it forward as a hypothesis until more facts come to light.
What about “mom”?
My son didn’t ask about “mom”, but it seems fair and reasonable to toss this word in as well. So, turning back to the Online Etymology Dictionary, we learn:
1570s, representing the native form of the reduplication of *ma- that is nearly universal among the Indo-European languages (Greek mamme “mother, grandmother,” Latin mamma, Persian mama, Russian and Lithuanian mama “mother,” German Muhme “mother’s sister,” French maman, Welsh mam “mother”). Probably a natural sound in baby-talk, perhaps imitative of sound made while sucking.
Its late appearance in English is curious, but Middle English had mome (mid-13c.) “an aunt; an old woman,” also an affectionate term of address for an older woman. In educated usage, the stress is always on the last syllable. In terms of recorded usage of related words in English, mama is from 1707, mum is from 1823, mummy in this sense from 1839, mommy 1844, momma 1852, and mom 1867.
In other words, it seems that my “dada” hypothesis can be equally applied to “mama”, with that sound being associated with the mother because it is considered a “sucking” sound.