Terms of Endearment
May 19, 2008 9:52 PM   Subscribe

Children nicknamed "mommy" or "papa". What's the deal?

I know a few African American families where a child has a nickname like "mommy" or "papa" that, in my experience among white families, would only be reserved for a parent. (I'm white.)

I guess in my mind those sorts of parental nicknames are so strongly linked to adults that it is a bit jarring to me to hear a parent refer to their kid with one of those nicknames.

Is this common in the black community? Is it common among whites (or for that matter, other ethnic groups) and I just missed it?

What's the logic--is it due to a strong resemblance to that parent (if so, I don't particularly see it with the kids I know who prompted the question), or perhaps a particularly "parental", bossy nature?
posted by Sublimity to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know why either, but a from-Venezuela Venezuelan friend of mine gets called Mami by her mom.
posted by phunniemee at 9:58 PM on May 19, 2008

It is simply a term of endearment unique to Latin and to a lesser extent, black culture (I was not called anything like this as a child and I believe that black folks started doing it after hearing it from the Latino culture.) Just like white people calling their children "pumpkin" or "muffin"... or whatever else white people call their children. It has nothing to do with the child's resemblance to the parent.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 10:11 PM on May 19, 2008

A black friend of mine called her first born son Daddy, now that you mention it, but I sorta remember her saying it had to do with how grown-up and serious a little boy he was. I wasn't aware of it being a black thing. My wife, who is Malay, calls our babies "Momma", but that's a contraction of "Baby Momma", meaning "Momma's Baby" in her manner of speaking. Terms of endearment are strange like that.
posted by BinGregory at 10:24 PM on May 19, 2008

Here in Texas, papi is a term of endearment for a small male child - shortened form of papito - it's sorta like Junior. Same for mami. It's very, very common here esp with very small children.(Even when the kids aren't your own) It's pretty much universally used here in Tex-Mex culture.
posted by bigmusic at 10:52 PM on May 19, 2008

papi is even sometimes shortened all the way down to "pops".
posted by bigmusic at 10:54 PM on May 19, 2008

Puerto Ricans routinely use the terms "mama" and "papi" as terms of endearment like "sweetie" or "buddy." My wife calls both me and our two year old son "papa" all the time. I'm used to it, but my gringo parents find it very strange.
posted by Crotalus at 11:10 PM on May 19, 2008

In Bangladeshi culture children are often called "ma" (or I suppose "abba" if they're male). My parents would call me "ma" very often.

I often got confused by that, so when I asked my parents about it they said that it's considered something of a compliment because you love your parents and you love your children equally! or something along those lines.
posted by divabat at 11:19 PM on May 19, 2008

MrTaff is Tibetan. He frequently says things to ToddlerTaff like "Shoes Daddy" or "Eat Daddy"(in Tibetan of course). I understand it's a familial shorthand for "Get your shoes for Daddy" or "Eat your dinner for Daddy". I wonder if some other people do the same thing but it's translated from their original language in to an odd form of English.

Might I add that ToddlerTaff still doesn't comply... but that may be more of a toddler thing than a Tibetan thing.
posted by taff at 4:00 AM on May 20, 2008

There's a fantastic little girl I've met several times (she was my bosses niece) who has mild Downs Syndrome and everyone...EVERYONE calls her "Mama", and apparently always has. She is without a doubt the sweetest, gentlest, kindest little girl you've ever met. She also loves taking care of things and holding and being gentle with things. (Kittens, puppies, whatever...) I assumed it had something to do with this. In her case, as a very small child, it was probably easier for her to say and understand than her actual name.
posted by TomMelee at 6:22 AM on May 20, 2008

It is definitely a Latin thing; the only blacks I've known to do it are Latin Blacks (eg, Dominicans). In my very Latin neighborhood, strangers call me Mami all the time; usually they are older and very often women. I assume it is cause I am young enough to be their kid and they are nice.
posted by dame at 7:03 AM on May 20, 2008

Just to make the umpteenth comment on this happening in Hispanic cultures: Cubans do it too.
posted by oddman at 7:19 AM on May 20, 2008

In my experience it's a Latin thing... I grew up in Texas and "papi" was a cute little term of endearment for a little kid. I live in Boston now and don't forget Boston Red Sox David Ortiz is known as "Big Papi" which has nothing to do with resemblance to a father figure... it's sort of again, a term of endearment.
posted by jerryg99 at 7:24 AM on May 20, 2008

I'm white, second-generation Italian, and have witnessed many of my family and friends of similar heritage call their children mama/papa. Usually, the child's mother calls the child "mama" and the child's father calls the child "papa." I agree with most other comments in that it is a term of endearment.
posted by LouMac at 7:31 AM on May 20, 2008

It's a nice little Hispanic term of familiarity/endearment. You get a white diner waitress, she calls you honey. You get a Cuban or Puerto Rican diner waitress, she calls you mami.
posted by cmyk at 8:06 AM on May 20, 2008

It is certainly common in DC. My daughter goes through life being called "mama," "mami," "li'l mama," etc more than her name. My wife finds it really strange, she grew up in whitebread suburbs. I didn't even notice it until she pointed it out, I grew up in the rural south in areas that are 75-80% African-American.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:22 AM on May 20, 2008

On Saved by the Bell, Slater used to call Jessie Spano "Mama" but I'm guessing it was a "Hot Mama" kind of thing=)
posted by onepapertiger at 8:31 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Verrrrry interesting! I'm white and my mom would often call me "Mommy" in a very specific context. She would never address me as "Mommy," as in "Mommy, come here!" but she would often say it as sort of a comment, like if she was lifting me out of the tub she might say "Okay mommy!" I talk to my dog this way, too. When she looks up at me I might say "Hi Mommy!" I had no idea this was a cultural thing. I wonder where she got it. I think it's sweet.
posted by HotToddy at 10:05 AM on May 20, 2008

My wife(half white/half hispanic, raised mostly by her white father) calls me daddy as a term of endearment. We have no children, and this started before we ever even had pets. It used to aggravate me, but I've grown kind of fond of it now.
posted by owtytrof at 10:31 AM on May 20, 2008

I don't know the logic behind it, but it's a term of affection in Yiddish as well, at least for girls. Spelled mamele or mamala (and pronounced, more or less, as mom-a-la), it means "little mommy" or "little mother".
posted by natalie b at 6:46 PM on May 20, 2008

This happens in Norwegian too - "lillemor" - but as I am not a native (IANAN?) I'm not sure if there is any particular logic. Perhaps when there is a new baby in the house and the big sister gets to play at being a sort of miniature mother?
posted by Theresa at 10:46 AM on May 21, 2008

Response by poster: OP here. Thanks all for your input. I'm from mixed north/east European stock, raised in a blue-collar town in the midwest, and I'd never heard this before.

One of the families that prompted my question (with the little girl called "mommy"/mami) has some Spanish-speaking heritage--I think her maternal grandmother speaks primarily Spanish and has limited English skills. However, I've only ever heard her father call her by that nickname, and at least by his accent and speech patterns he doesn't sound remotely like he speaks Spanish.

The other family I noticed this in (with a boy called "papa") doesn't have any Latin heritage, as far as I know...

Either way, thanks for the info! I love that there are so many ways to be sweet to your kids in this wide, wide world.
posted by Sublimity at 4:59 PM on May 21, 2008

It might go back to some human universals. The "ma" sound is the first syllable made by any baby, and is associated with "mother" in pretty much every language on Earth. Some languages however may take that association and spin it back onto the speaker, i.e. the baby. So, baby says mama, mother says mami. That sort of thing.

(Side note: You know what other language uses Abba for father? Hebrew.)
posted by effugas at 1:06 PM on May 25, 2008

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