Terms of Endearment: How Wire Hangers and Greek Nomenclature Define our Family.

As a little girl I called my parents Maman and  Pop. I never really stopped to think about their names. My American Grandfather and step Grandmother were called Grandpa and Mary (or The Dragon Lady behind her back). It’s a miracle that one never slipped out. As a little girl, I thought it had to do with her beautiful, colorful kaftans, not my father’s sentiments for her. Funny how kids interpret things.

In France, they were Grand-Pere and Grand-Mere. At a certain age, I wondered why most of my cousins called my grandmother Mamie. I asked my mother about it and she told me she didn’t want to confuse me as Mamie, a common term for grandmother, was too close in pronunciation to Mommy. I had an “A-HA” moment as I never really put the two together until then.

I do recall a time when I wanted to call my mother Mommy and even tried to. As I remember it, she would respond that she wasn’t Mommy but Maman. I don’t think her request bothered me at the time. That said, as I got older and would occasionally call her Mommy by accident. I remember she would get annoyed because it reminded her of the film “Mommy Dearest”. Boy admitting that was one of her finest mistakes. As a tween & teen I could imply she was being horrible without actually saying the words. I’d run around the house shouting “NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!!” – a mechanism to push her buttons as easy as the actual push of a button!

Fast Forward enough years to make me a mother. (I may not be Joan Crawford but I can still be in denial about my age.)

For Javier, it should be fairly straight forward as the word for father is the same in French and Spanish: Papa. Still Daddy keeps cropping up. I’m blaming the school and no it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with any TV  I may be allowing her to watch!  And me? For the longest time, my eldest called me Mama because my husband refers to me as such. Somehow I did get her to call me Maman for a while and then she switched to Mommy. I try to encourage her to call me Maman. I don’t know what it is but I don’t feel like a Mommy. I am sure somewhere there is some book that says you will deeply scar your child if you refuse to respond to their attempts to call you by whichever name, but think of me as supporting the economy by investing in the future of psychotherapists and the like.

As an aside I’d love to be called Mummy. Chalking that one up to the 10 years I spent in the UK. I wonder if French mothers in the UK resent it because they envision Tutankhamun or Scooby-Doo.

At this point you may be wondering where the Greek nomenclature comes in. My mother decided that her grandchildren would call her Yaya and my father Papou. It’s not that I dislike these names. In fact I feel an attachment to Yaya as this term is used in Turkey where I lived for a time.  Papou is sweet and it has grown on me as I hear my eldest daughter use it. But we aren’t Greek, have any Greek heritage, nor ever lived in Greece. And truth be told, it is uncomfortably close to Poo-poo. There I said it. Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t live so close to my parents. I can hear it now “Papou I need to Poopoo!” but she never just says things once. Try saying that 5 times in a row quickly. You get the picture…

I should say this whole post was inspired by a post I read on the topic. There I discovered another word for mother: Emme. I think Emme is so beautiful. Separately, I’ve always loved the Danish words for Grandmother and Grandfather, especially how they differentiate the set of grandparents (maternal or paternal). Mor is mother. Far is father. So MorMor means my mother’s mother and MorFar is mother’s father.  I wish I could have persuaded my parents to adopt that but no such luck.

Pea With Tatarabuelo (Great Grandfather) in Autlan 2009.

What do you call parents?Grandparents? Do you wish you could rename anyone? I wonder how many wonderful options are out there that I don’t know about. And if you have any latin grandparents, what do you call them? We refer to Javier’s parents as Abuelito y Abuelita but P hasn’t seen them since she could talk so who knows what will emerge. Maybe, just maybe, since my Franco-American parents have Greek names, my Mexican in-laws may be persuaded to take Scandinavian ones. No harm in asking!

Afterthought: While checking the spelling of Papou, I came across a thread stating that Opa means grandfather in German but Older brother in Korean. Of course the person who posed the question actually wanted to know what it meant in Greek.

12 thoughts on “Terms of Endearment: How Wire Hangers and Greek Nomenclature Define our Family.

  1. Very complicated :)

    In my family the kids’ Estonian grandmother is nana (the full word for grandmother is “vanaema”, but that’s too long :). The kids’ Aussie grandparents are mamma and papa – those names came to be just because our firstborn had speech problems as a toddler and those words were the ones that he could actually pronounce without a problem.

  2. I wonder what names your children will still use in their teens. In the Uk sadly ‘mummy’ is a real no-no, considered way too babyish amongst teens and peergroups.. All my kids reverted to calling me Mum very early on and certainly within primary school. My own mother who detested the name ‘mum’ refused to let us use it which compromsed us horribly in our teens. At school we would refer to her as ‘mum’ (whilst out of earshot), at home with friends visiting we had no name to call her at all, and now we never call her by a name partly out of habit. Interestingly my own mother called her mother by her christian name Mollie as soon as she married. Somehow that doesn’t work for my sister and I, so my mother remains nameless for us both, (unless we refer to her out of earshot where she remains ‘mum’) Sad isn’t it!

    • I’d take Mum too. Just once when my daughter was barely talking, we spent a week at a friends house in London and from the back of the car, P suddenly yelled out Mum. I would have fallen over but I was strapped by my seatbelt! Maman is sort of quite adult like so hopefully they will stick to that. I remember when I went through a phase desperate to call my parents John and Elisabeth. I am so grateful to my parents for forbidding that. Now I find it really weird and disconcerting when kids – especially young ones but really all ages call their parents by their first names.

      I hope you don’t mind my prying, but how did you get your mother’s attention if you were in the same room but say her back was to you?

  3. I got into the habit of calling my mother “mum” in elementary school, and it stuck (though I alternate between that and “mom”.) I’m not sure why, since I had lived in the states my whole life, except a couple visits to other countries. Too many British books and movies. She liked it at the time, and so did I, so it stuck. My father I call “dad”, but my stepmother I call by her given name.

  4. Nana and Paka for the grandparents on my mom’s side–no linguistic hints, there, just baby-speak. Good old Grandma and Grandpa on my dad’s side. For the new generation, my MIL was named “Mee-maw” out of my daughter’s mouth. Step-FIL is “Pop Pop,” FIL is “Grandpa” and step-MIL is “Grandma (first name).”

    My mom is “Grandma (first name).” My father, slightly eccentric, is insisting on being called Saba, which is Hebrew. Yes, we are Jewish, but I don’t think there’s EVER been a Saba in our direct lineage for the last 1500 years or so… Even if we were back in an eastern european shtlel it would have been “zayde” (yiddish).

  5. The kids call us mommy and papi, their English-speaking grandparents are grandma and grandpa, and the Spanish-speaking grandparents are ‘ita and ‘ito (shortened from abuelita and abuelito). Their great-grandmas are both Spanish speaking, and are both called “bisi” (shortened from bisabuelita). Such a fun topic:). We have aunties, uncles and tias, tios depending on the language as well…

  6. I call my American mother “Mom” and my Filipino father “Dad,” but Mom’s parents are “Grandma” and “Grandpa” while Dad’s parents are “Lola” and “Lolo,” the Tagalog words for them. Once I learned a little more Tagalog, though, I decided I really like the word for father – Tatay – and I wish my dad would have made me call him that when I was young!

  7. My son and my niece call my parents Abu (abuela) and Padushi (grandfather in Papiamento – the language of the Netherlands Antilles – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao)….we are in Puerto Rico for the holidays and my son (4) is really starting to use his spoken Spanish, especially when there are other kids involved who might play with him! Hurray!

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