Mother’s Day Etymology: Where Does “Mom” Come From?
  • 2-minute read
  • 12th May 2019

Mother’s Day Etymology: Where Does “Mom” Come From?

Today is Mother’s Day, the day we thank our female parents for their love and patience. But where do the words “mother” and “mom” come from? Why are there so many words for mothers in English? And are they all correct? Let’s take a (motherly) look and find out.

The Origins of Mother

The modern English “mother” comes from the Old English term modor. And “mom,” along with other of informal or shortened terms such as “mommy” and “ma,” are often traced to this root.

Interestingly, though, these shorter words may be even older. The word “mama” appears in some form in dozens of languages, including Mandarin (Mãma), Hindi (māṃ) and Arabic (māma). This is because simple noises like “mama” and “papa” are among most babies’ first vocalizations.

And given the nature of a baby’s desires, ‘mama’ probably means ‘feed me’ most of the time. (Photo: amyelizabethquinn)
We imagine “mama” means “feed me” most of the time.
(Photo: amyelizabethquinn)

The theory, then, is that “mother” and its modern variations are all rooted in the baby talk of “mama.” So one thing we have in common with our earliest ancestors may be our words for “mom.”

 Mom, Mum or Mam?

In the US, most people call their mothers “mom.” But you may have heard “mum” or “mam” used as well, especially in other countries. So why are there so many variations on this term?

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Largely, it’s a matter of where you come from. The three terms we’ve picked out here, for instance, are all associated with different places:

  • Mom is most associated with American English.
  • Mum is common in Australia and the UK (especially England).
  • Mam is common in Ireland, Wales, and parts of northern England.

These are all accepted terms for “mother” in one place or another, so your preference will usually depend on where you grew up. And the “correct” spelling will depend on the dialect in question. But in American English, you are usually safe sticking with “mom.”

But which came first? Well, “mam” is probably the oldest of the three spellings above, since the earliest recorded use of “mama” in English dates back to 1707. By comparison, the earliest appearances of “mum” and “mom” are from 1823 and 1867, respectively.

Whatever your chosen term, though, we hope all the mothers out there are having a great day! And, mother or not, we hope you’ve enjoyed our etymological look at motherhood.

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