05 August 2021, The Tablet

The words we use for mum and dad

The words we use for mum and dad

God knows the real names of everything; it says so in the Psalms.
Addictive Stock Creatives / Alamy

And what did you last call your father?  One great thing about being a parent is that you get to choose not only what names to give your children, but also what they call you...or so I thought. It certainly works when they are little, but they can choose to go off-piste when they are older.

I always called my parents Mummy and Daddy, from start to finish, even though some of my siblings were happy with Mum and Dad. I don’t like “Mum” for various reasons, especially the way people bandy it around. I loathed being addressed by it in ante-natal clinics and labour wards. It’s nearly always accompanied by a patronising attitude and a basic assumption that you’re a bit thick. Having a child does not mean softening of the brain (quite the opposite), and you remain the person (with her own name) that you were before. It’s used indiscriminately in so many children’s books, including the reading schemes at school, and it’s often printed entirely in lower case. So my children were firmly encouraged to call me Mummy. And their father was Daddy, because I was the person explaining who that was arriving home, but since he called his own parents Mum and Dad probably a good half of the time, he wasn’t quite so bothered about it. 

When you get married, you have to find something to call your in-laws. (My mother-in-law used to refer to my parents as “the out-laws”.)  We used to refer to each other’s parents as “my mother” and “your mother”. When I was growing up, we were taught to call all adults “auntie” and “uncle”, which was ironic, because though we had several real aunts and uncles, we never actually saw them. So I grew up with a horde of fake aunties and uncles, and when I met my future in-laws, I was completely stumped, because in my family, you never addressed people of my parents’ generation by their first names. (Nowadays, this feels like ancient anthropology, but trust me, it was true. Maybe it was just the Midlands.)  Some people seem to call their in-laws Mum and Dad, but I never felt comfortable with that as an option, and I offered the “auntie” suggestion, only to have it firmly squashed by my mother-in-law. I was amused to hear Una commenting on the problem last week, but at least she didn’t suggest calling me “auntie”. My own mother told me not to fret, as it would be perfectly fine once there were grandchildren. She was right.

But the arrival of grandchildren starts another interesting thread, because you have to be able to differentiate between the two sides. My husband had “Red Granny” and “Green Granny”, after the colour of their glasses (there was not so much choice in frames in those days), and I had a Granny and a Nana. We also distinguished between the grandfathers: we had Grandpa (Daddy’s father) and Grandpop (Mummy’s). My mother was very impressed when two of my cousins married Danes and we discovered that they had different words for the two sides (Farmor and Farfar, as opposed to Mormor and Morfar). When Mummy discovered that there was a variant she heard as “Bestemor” (though in fact it’s not quite spelled like that), she was sad not to have her own Danish grandchildren. 

My parents were happy to be Granny and Grandpa or Gran and Grandad, but at this point the children started to take a hand. Rachel’s attempt at Grandad was “Bada”, and that stuck, so then they were known as Bada and Badasgran (Granny for short). The paternal side were Granny and Grampa, so we had just enough differentiation to work. Since Rachel was the eldest, she set the names as far as her brothers and sisters were concerned. When my brothers and sisters had children, they made different choices, but the only people who had to keep on top of it were our parents. I do remember Daddy getting testy once or twice when trying to remember how to sign a birthday card. The granddaughter who lived closest called him Poppa and her other grandfather Bada, so you can see how confusion might arise.

Some languages have complete sets of different words for the relationships according to whether it’s on the father or mother’s side, and it always amuses me to see the lists, because a single word on one side can need whole lines of explanation on the other. They tend to be countries where relationships and the structure of clans have more impact on regular behaviour and assumptions. And because it’s the sort of word you learn when you are little, and trying to work out how your family fits together, you find it difficult to imagine how other people manage without such distinctions. I think the English word “cousin” is an extremely useful one, as it can cover almost any degree of relatedness, and it’s up to you how close you want it to be; there are no automatic assumptions. Siblings are your first ring of relations of your own age; but outside that, you can call most related people cousins, and choose which ones you want to be close to. I am interested to see my generation of extended cousins even using it as a title to address people, which I would have thought was old-fashioned, if I hadn’t found people cheerfully using it at weddings and funerals, and on WhatsApp. And you can extend cousinship to the extra people that any large family acquires along the way. We have several extra cousins (and I have to admit that some of them do call me “auntie”). And when we lived in Kenya for a while, I discovered that it wasn’t in fact just the Midlands, as “auntie” and “uncle” were very widely used as honorifics by younger people.

Two of our children have decided to move on from Mummy and Daddy, though the others haven’t: Margaret and John. Margaret calls me various things, depending partly on what she’s been reading, I think, so I can be Mamma or Momma. John has decided to go more formal, so he calls me Mamma or Mother. This leaves both of us slightly unsure as to whether he is sending up me or himself. I used to worry that Mother would sound cold, but actually it just sounds slightly humorous. You don’t even need names quite a lot of the time, and it’s usually quicker to go and find somebody than to stand still and yell. We have a dinner bell (because our house has a lot of stairs), but John has taken against it, so now we summon people by text message, which is ridiculous, but saves arguments.

Names are roles and titles as well as just people-labels. Edmund does some stand-up and comedy improv, and we have discovered that he has a stock character called “my dad”, who occurs in some of his material. This person (lower-case and all) is not my husband, nor Edmund’s father. That is the person called “Daddy”, but the different names means that Edmund can invent stories, slant them or develop them, more freely than he could if it were a real person. I discovered recently that Peter has a similar character, “my mum”, occasionally occurring on his Twitter account, absolutely nothing to do with me, as far as I can tell. Story telling is an art, and art needs invention. One way of keeping tabs on what’s real and what’s made up is to give it different names;  and giving names is a powerful thing to do. Even simply knowing someone’s name is significant in several fairy stories; think about Rumpelstiltskin and Tom-tit-tot.

Jesus suggests that we address God as “Our Father”, but that is an odd formation, if you stand back a moment and think about it. It’s nothing like a normal form of address. Even in a large family, you wouldn’t address someone as “our father”, except ironically. Jesus is sending a message here about relationships: not just mine with God, but also, mine with other people. God is my Father, but he’s also in the same relationship to everyone else, which makes them all my sisters and brothers, even when I am speaking directly to God. I cannot narrow it down.

We recently had the reading on a Sunday where St Paul talks about us calling God “Abba”, and I remember being told in a sermon that this was not a “Father” word but a “Daddy” one. I find that a little hard to handle, as a name for God, but partly because for me it is a unique name, that I could not imagine applying to anyone else. People who have had bad experiences with their own father must also find this difficult, for opposite reasons. Finding acceptable solutions must always be a problem for step-children and older adoptees; but it is important, which is why it’s often a crucial scene in a film about family. It’s not what we call God that matters, any more that it matters what our children call us, or we call our parents. It’s the intimacy that Paul is trying to convey here. 

The Bible is always talking about God’s name, without actually using it, or using different possibilities, some vague, some lengthy, some even plural, because names represent the whole of a person, and God is beyond our compass. “God”, like “Lord”,  is almost a job title instead of a name. When people ask God to tell them his name, he uses descriptions (“the God of your fathers”, “the God of Abraham”) or enigmas (“Say that “I AM” has sent me to you”), which do not answer the question. We can praise it, glorify it, call upon it, and we talk about all these things without noticing that we don’t actually know it. 

We can look forward to finding it out, though. We will one day “know even as we are known”,  not “through a glass, darkly”, but “face to face”. God apparently has a secret name for all of us, a name written in the palm of his hand, a name which is our exact right name, which must be a comfort if you”ve been saddled with something you feel to be inappropriate or inadequate. God knows the real names of everything; it says so in the Psalms. He doesn’t just number all the stars, “he calls them each by name”. So he actually will call you by your proper name, and just like the stars, this will make you shine.




Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn 

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