It seems that the word "mom" derives from "mamm-", Latin for breast. I have actually heard it told that the Latin root "mamm-" derives from the baby's first natural sounds, though I cannot attribute this.

Interestingly, the etymology for "dad" states that this word is "nearly universal and probably prehistoric", an idea that corresponds nicely with the etymology for "mom". However, in my own language this word is not used for father, but rather we say "aba". In fact, my own empirical observations raising children lends to the idea that babies say the "a", "b", and "m" sounds, but not the "d" sound. Therefore I suggest selection bias towards whoever decided that because his culture encourages babies to say "d" (because they expect it) and that the baby then makes the sound.

How established can an etymology be, and how is one challenged? Is there a canonical etymology of English words? What other words have disputed etymologies? I know that I could write to the author of the website etymonline.com but I am more interested in understanding the process of creating and challenging etymologies than in correcting any inaccuracies.

  • 4
    Firstly, my understanding is that English "mum" does not come from Latin "mamm-", but is a diminutive of English "mummy/mama". Secondly, I think my answer to this question might answer your question (in particular, read the paper by Larry Trask I link to). These mama/papa words cannot be dealt with via etymology as they are regularly recreated anew in every language. May 3, 2012 at 9:55
  • @GastonÜmlaut Since this is not a duplicate, I think you could still elaborate an answer to this one, also pointing to the "mistakes" you pointed. I don't doubt someone might come asking the same, so why not using this opportunity to pull out a good answer from this? :D
    – Alenanno
    May 3, 2012 at 10:21
  • 1
    The process of creating etymology was addressed in my question: How do linguists find the etymology?
    – Alenanno
    May 3, 2012 at 11:08

2 Answers 2


Jakobson in a 1969 article theorized that the words for 'mum' and 'dad' across languages were indeed based on the first sounds an infant produced. Thus they would constitute an important exception to the rule that language is arbitrary.

He also noted just like you that it applied clearly to [m] and 'mum', and less precisely to [d] , [p] or [t] (as in the english dad, the french papa or the polish tata).

In a nutshell our 'mum' is so natural she's not arbitrary but our 'dad' is already culture-dependent ;-)

Also in 1969 Benveniste tackled precisely the question of 'dad' in the chapter 'kinship' of his fantastic "Vocabulary of Indo-European Institutions". Benveniste focused primarily on the drift of the semantics of these words in relationship with each other, but his etymological knowledge was very famous.

Step 1: He points out that although more formal forms like father are sound-related to forms like dad today, one isn't derived from the other in modern times, but rather that they evolved through the ages in parallel. He notes the Gothic atta was the norm to designate the father and that fadar was almost never used.

Step 2: This form atta in turn comes almost certainly from an Indo-European root because almost identical forms are found in Latin and Greek. He also connects it with Slavic 'otic' via a hypothetic compound form *otta + *ik (i.e. 'father' + 'qualifier').

This also tells you something about etymology methods: either you already have a trace of the change (as in step 1, where the Gothic form is attested in old corpora) or you try to reconstruct a hypothetical proto-form by comparing related languages and making certain assumptions as in step 2.

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    Thank you! This addresses the main issue (etymology of Dad) and also the broader scope of how etymologies are contrived.
    – dotancohen
    Jun 24, 2012 at 5:30
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    Nobody yet mentioned the exception that proves the rule. In Georgian, "დედა" (deda) means "mother" and "მამა" (mama) means "father". This is a very famous factoid and indicates that there is still a bit of arbitrariness in the assignment of early baby sounds to which parent in the world's languages. Jun 24, 2012 at 11:06
  • Thank you. But about "tata" in Spanish? These are the first sounds an infant produces in Spanish.
    – user1226
    Aug 5, 2012 at 1:08
  • Invoking the notion of Sprachbund, could 'dad' have been borrowed from Welsh/English bilinguals in the counties bordering those countries? The Welsh word for father is 'tad', with mutated forms 'dad', 'thad' and 'nhad'. Feb 20, 2015 at 14:15
  • @DavidGarner idk but it's possible... also possible is again common root because welsh and in general celtic languages are also indoeuropean
    – rloth
    Jun 27, 2016 at 20:06

English "dad" comes from Proto-Indo-European teutos "elder relative, grandfather".

From this root comes Russian "ded" "grandfather", German name for Germany "Deutschland" and many other words.

  • 5
    And your evidence?
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 10, 2016 at 10:32

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