The Origin of “Dad” And Why Some Men Prefer to Be Called “Father”

Why do we say dad, anyway?

by Graham Techler
Originally Published: 
Man with two kids and a cat lying on the couch.
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The nicknames we use for parents go in and out of fashion age to age and era to era. At one time, men preferred “Sire.” Other times, “Father” was preferable. What we do know is that the most agreed upon way to refer to dad these days is by calling him, well, ‘dad.’

But why have we ditched ‘father’ for dad? The short answer is that things have gotten a little less formal. But the reason we’ve moved away from formality is that we’ve embraced what’s more linguistically natural for children and parents. ‘Father’ comes from the Proto-Indo-European “pəter” and Old English ‘fæder,’ meaning “he who begets a child,” reflecting the baby-talk sound “pa” as well as a phonetic shift from ‘p’ to ‘f’ in Middle English.

However, ‘dad’ did not evolve from ‘father.’

“It’s from ‘dada,’” says Professor John H. McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, “a natural sound from children’s mouths as a second stab at consonants after they try the most natural ‘mama.’ Next is often either ‘dada, ‘tata,’ ‘baba’ or … ‘papa.’ Upon which, ‘father’ starts in Proto-Indo-European as “puh-TAIR,” and the ‘puh’ part is this same thing: what started as ‘pa’ in ‘papa.’ The words for Mommy and Daddy are the closest thing to linguistic universals because they are about mouth anatomy in infants rather than thought.”

There are also another key reason why this is reinforced over time. Emie Tittnich, a specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, speaking to Live Science, noted that parents generally refrain from using pronouns like ‘I’ or ‘you’ to avoid confusing their kids with abstract concepts early on. “‘Parents will use [‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’] to help their children learn the role names and also to indicate the relationship, ‘mommy and me,'” says Tittnich. “It usually takes the child awhile to understand that the same person can be called two different names.”

The agreed-upon naturality of these linguistic principles mean that as American society has become more colloquial and secular over time, we move (at least in this instance) away from a term that’s reflective of a status quo based in rigid concepts of class and religion—one of the meanings of ‘fæder’ in Old English is ‘supreme being,’ according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. As a result, we’re generally caught off guard when we hear a child refer to a parent as ‘father.’

However, this is not unanimously the case. We spoke with six dads who prefer — or simply stuck with — ‘father’ instead of ‘dad.’ Some do it as an homage to their own fathers; others do it to sound more authoritative. Others do it because it’s what their kids like. All have their reasons and, maybe, deep inside, some are just big fans of Proto-Indo-European language. Here’s what they say.

It’s What My Father Preferred

I sometimes worry that it sounds a little austere out loud, but it’s just what my father always asked us to call him, and it felt like it was important to me that we carry that on. No one in my family has had a problem with it. I think you can still be a ‘dad’ and be called ‘father,’ if that makes sense. It’s basically semantic, in that way, but it’s also more than semantics. — John, Baltimore, MD

Its What My Kid Decided to Call Me

It’s less of a request or a demand or anything, but when we were teaching my oldest what everything is called, we always just said ‘this is your mother’ and ‘this is your father,’ and he liked to say that, too. So we’ve kept it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it was just adorably proper to have our little man coming up to us and saying “father, mother, may I use the bathroom,” or what have you. But as with everything, I don’t mind anything that seems to feel natural for my kids and makes them happy. — Eric, Austin, Texas

We’ve Always Been a More Traditional Family

My son didn’t start until he was older. I think he thought it sounded more respectful, or just more professional. We’ve always been a more traditional family, in how we carry ourselves, I guess you would say. So perhaps this was his way of taking that in stride, or contributing to that. My wife teases me about it sometimes. I should clarify, it’s generally him introducing me to other people that way. ‘This is my father, have you met my father?’ etc. — Patrick, Twin Cities, MN

It Just Sort of Stuck

In the past two years, my older daughter, age 21, began calling me ‘father’ and as strange as I found it, I didn’t mine it at all. Now, my four-year-old calls me “father” and I guess I now have a new title. As long as I am not being called ‘Henry,’ I am okay with it. — Henry, Boston, MA

It’s a Bit More Authoritative

I have eight children—three boys and five girls. I’ve always asked that they call me ‘father’ not to be domineering but because the house could get a little chaotic, as you can imagine, and my wife and I felt that it was a label that was more authoritative and kept things from being too chaotic. ‘Please don’t touch your father’s golf clubs’ just has a better ring to it, I guess. — Elliott, Charlotte, NC

It Instills a Sense of Responsibility in Me

I love that my children call me ‘father,’ because of the sense of responsibility it instills in me. Your ‘dad’ or ‘daddy’ is there to lend you the car, your ‘father’ is there to raise you, and protect you and make sure that you have the tool you need to succeed in life. When my kids call me ‘father,’ it reignites that sense of purpose for me every day, and reminds me it’s up to me to make their world a great place to grow up in. — Sam, Alachua Country, FL

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