Q&A: "Mum vs Mom" – the mother of all battles

Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, in celebration of Mother’s Day, we wanted to know why mum’s not the word everywhere…

Q: Hey there AWC. Did you know that it was Mother’s Day on Sunday?
A: We did.

Q: And do you know why some mothers in the English-speaking world are called “mom”, while others are called “mum”?
A: Well, sort of. Certainly if you’re in the US, your mother is your “mom” – short for “mommy” and in the UK, Australia and New Zealand it’s “mum” – shortened from “mummy”. Canada uses both (or even “maman” in French-speaking Quebec). Ireland and some parts of Britain opt for “mam” – from “mammy”. And others go for “mama”.

Q: Well that’s cleared that up. Thanks SO much.
A: Yes, sorry about that. Obviously they all mean the same thing – and the exact origins are a little foggy, but essentially they begin with “mamma” back in the 1500s.

Q: So “mamma” was like the matriarch of this word family then?
A: Yes, very good. As for how that word came about, it’s probably from the natural baby-talk sound, possibly the first sound humans learn, regardless of where they grow up. In fact, take a look at a list of different languages’ words for “mother” and you’ll see most begin with or contain the “m” sound. As to why “mamma” has only been around since the Middle Ages, that's anyone’s guess.

Q: I’ll guess it’s because of global warming.
A: No, it’s not that.

Q: You can’t prove that. Anyway, so it all started with “mamma”…
A: Yes, but make sure you put the stress on the last syllable.

Q: Really? Ahhhh, okay yes that’s better… now we sound like we’re in that M. Night Shyamalan film set in the village. What was that called again?
A: The Village.

Q: Oh yes. But anyway, we’ve strayed somewhat (something you wouldn’t want to do in The Village). When did “mom” and “mum” come onto the scene?
A: First there was “mama”, which came on board in the early 1700s. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that “mum” and “mummy” turned up in usage.

Q: Wow, that’s quite recent. So, was the word “mummy” in use before that? The kind that’s wrapped in bandages and chases Shaggy and Scooby Doo, but turns out to be Old Man Smithers from the Haunted Amusement Park?
A: Yes, that had been kicking about for centuries by then, from the Arabic mumiya (meaning embalmed body). Then Brendan Fraser did those Mummy films, and he would have got away with it if it weren’t for those meddling film critics.

Q: Nice. So what about “mom”?
A: Well, this is where the fog rolls in again. No one is quite sure why the Americans chose “o” instead of “u” – but the early 1800s saw a considerable shift away from British spelling in favour of more logical options. Perhaps getting “mommy” from “mother” made more sense to them. The first recorded use of “mommy” was in 1844, and by 1867 the shortened “mom” had taken off. It’s been that way ever since.

Q: So “mum” also means to keep quiet. When did that come along?
A: Oddly, that version had been around since at least the 1500s – Shakespeare even used a variation of the idiom “mum’s the word” in one of his plays. It originates from the sound made when closing your lips. (And the word “mumble” also came from this.)

Q: Well, thanks for all that. Now, what about “dad”?
A: Ask us in September…

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