Call Me…

16 Jul

My close friends know of what I am about to speak and why. Then, there’s my interest in word origins and, ergo, this blog.

Where do nicknames for grandmother and grandfather come from? In my immediate family, we called my mother’s parents Grandma and Grandpa. My paternal grandparents were Nana and Poppo. We always knew which “set” were which. As a child, I didn’t question “where” the nicknames Nana and Poppo came from. I thought that everyone probably used them. My sister’s family uses first names to define sets as in Grandma Kay and Grandma Jean (Not my favorite method because using the first name makes it seem too formal to me).

I do remember thinking it funny on the old Bewitched series when Samantha’s mother, Endora, didn’t like the terms Gran, Gram, or any English derivation. She insisted on Grandmama (it might have been Grandmaman) or Grandmère. I know it was something French in origin.

Then, a couple of months ago, I heard a little girl call out to Meemaw and Papaw. Wow, color me stunned. Where in the heck did those come from? There are other nicknames out there?

I instantly decided I needed to get my preferences in to my son and DIL. Now, I love those smart, ambitious kids but right now, they’re career-driven and there are no offspring in sight for a few years. But, I didn’t want to be saddled with a nickname I didn’t like. After solemnly assuring them that what I was about to say should be in no way misconstrued as pressure to get a move on in the grandbaby department, I explained that I wanted to be “Nana” should the opportunity arise. My son said, “Noted.” My DIL laughed. And that was that.

So, where did using Nana for grandmother start? Was it etymological or cultural? In researching, I found, “…child’s word for “grandmother” or, sometimes, “nurse,” first recorded c.1844.”

Mee-Maw (also Meemaw) is tougher. “…Elderly woman. Apparent meaning: an elderly woman Type of word formation: Slang for grandmother that went through semantic shift of generalization to refer to all elderly women. Possible reason used: Used to refer to any elderly woman but still holds on to the connotations of the word grandmother.”

One place said chiefly Northeastern U.S. while another longer article said:

“Affectionate names for grandparents are common–especially in the South, where nicknames are perhaps more widespread than in any other area of the country. Tradition, vanity, distinction between sets of grandparents, baby talk, happenstance and regional culture all play a part in nicknaming.

Take Meemaw and Papaw for example. These two nicknames are very common in Dixie, according to Dr. Mike Coggeshall, professor of anthropology at Clemson University in South Carolina. Dr. Coggeshall, who grew up in the Midwest, admits he never heard those names until moving South. (Maybe both regions?)

But how do pet names in the South originate? Usually the first grandchild gets naming rights, by virtue of his or her adorable and unusual ways to pronounce grandmother and grandfather.

If a child is unable to say grandma, for example, and Bama comes forth instead, grandma has her name! Likewise, if the child is unable to say grandpa, but Gundy spills out, grandpa, forever more is known as Gundy.”

For more nicknames than you’d ever want to discover, look at this website.

I didn’t get very far on actual etymology of the English nicknames because they seem to be culturally generated and not language driven. That’s interesting in itself.

So, share your family’s grandparent nicknames and the story, if any, behind them. I’d love to hear them. I might even find a new nickname for me to put into the mix!


Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Etymology, Family, Idaho, research


Tags: ,

16 responses to “Call Me…

  1. Liz Fredericks

    July 16, 2012 at 7:10 AM

    I always love the tidbits you provide on language. We’ve used the Grandma-firstname designation in the family. When my girls were little, they’d occasionally say G-ma or G-pa (I use this for a character). Your note about the names/words children used really struck me. My brother’s nickname was ‘ick’ (his name is Eric) for years cuz that’s what he could say. When his nieces and nephews started showing up, Uncle Eric became uncky (still in use). Pacifiers are ‘yi-yis’ in our family dialect, the baby sign language gestures are in use between sibs and parents. The favorite blanket is always a ‘B’ (since we keep them indefinitely and it isn’t cool to talk about your blanky in kindergarten . . . or junior high). Nice memories, Janis – Thank you!

    • Janis McCurry

      July 16, 2012 at 7:48 AM

      Ick becoming uncky is great. No other family has that story which is so wonderful.

  2. Clarissa Southwick

    July 16, 2012 at 7:35 AM

    We had Nana, Grammy and Grampy in our family, probably a result of the oldest child naming them. I do think this is an interesting point for writers as it could be revealing of characters, especially if there’s a stark contrast between the two sides of the family.

  3. Janis McCurry

    July 16, 2012 at 7:49 AM

    Spot on. Adding these familial names adds texture and depth to writing. Thanks, Clarissa.

  4. marsharwest

    July 16, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    Hey, Janis. Love the topic. My father’s parents were Grandma and Grandpa. I didn’t see them often and cousins had already named them when I came along. My daughters called my parents Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop. For the life of me, I don’t remember how those came about. I was an only child, so that was it for my parents’ names. Grandaddy was what our girls called my husband’s father. He had a brother and sister called Ainty (long “a” sound there) and Unk. It’s what my husband and brother called them. What can I say–east Texas roots. (I never could wrap my tongue around that long a and called the dear, wonderful woman “auntie.” like in an “ant” not “awnty.”
    The grands call me Mimi, which was what I requested, but thought I wasn’t going to get. My daughter had always referred to me as Grammy to her sweet Harvey, who we just lost after 14 years–so sad. So I’d been Grammy for quite a while when the first grand arrived. As it turned out when he pronounced “Grammy” and it came out as Mimi. So I got the name after all. My husband is Grandad.
    I agree it seems to be one of the privileges of being the first grand to name the grandparents. I also agree you have to have some way of distinguishing the sets of grandparents. Thanks for a fun trip down memory lane.

  5. Janis McCurry

    July 16, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    Marsha, I came across Mimi in my research. I’m glad you got to pick your “name.”

  6. maryvine

    July 16, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    My first grandson called me Grandmom-at first-then I’ve been called Grandma Mary (or Grandma) since. A couple of times, he accidentally called me teacher. 🙂 My mother’s parents were called mammy and pappy-they’re from Arkansas. Fun read, Janis. Thanks.

    • Janis McCurry

      July 16, 2012 at 9:42 AM

      I had fun reading and writing about the subject.

  7. Lynn Mapp

    July 16, 2012 at 9:32 AM

    I called my great-grandmother, grandma. I called my grandmother by her first name. I wouldn’t dream of allowing my children to do that. I didn’t see my paternal grandmother often. She came to visit us when I was a teenager, and I called her grandma. It didn’t feel right, but by that time I had manners. In the south grandparents are sometimes called Big Momma and Big Poppa.

    • Janis McCurry

      July 16, 2012 at 9:43 AM

      New nicknames to add to the list. Thanks, Lynn.

  8. robinconnelly

    July 16, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    I had 5 sets of grandparents growing up. I don’t have whole sets any more. But I have the remains of 5 sets, with the exception of a few-who remain a whole set. I rarely saw my grandparents as a child, and often only knew who I was visiting by the ‘nicknames’ we bestowed on them. I had a candy grandma/pa. Disneyland grandma/pa. Lucky Charms grandma/pa. Great-grandma/pa. And a set whom I called “Gamma” and “Gampa” or Grandma/Grandpa Allen. Strangely, the Allens were my favorite set. It took me years to actually figure out the actual names of my grandparents and what nickname matched them to it.

    • Janis McCurry

      July 16, 2012 at 10:35 AM

      Great nicknames! And you could keep them apart in your head. Thanks for the response, Robin.

  9. stephaniebergets

    July 16, 2012 at 10:41 AM

    When my first granson was born, I was lucky enough to babysit him one day a week, for a year. I’d decided I wanted to be called Grammy. On our days together, we worked on names. He could say, Mama, Papa but when I’d say Grammy, he look at me like I was a loon then giggle. One day he said, Meme (as is me me) It stuck. He starts first grade this year and still calls me Meme. I think I like it better than Grammy because it’s Logan’s word.
    We called our grandparents by using their last names. Grandma & Grandpa Queen and Grandma Schoonover. They were still alive when my kids were born so their grandparents were called by their first names, like Grandma Barb.
    Great topic, Janis.

  10. Janis McCurry

    July 16, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    Nice nickname, Meme!

  11. Peggy Staggs

    July 16, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    With my roots solidly in the Midwest we were stuck with Grandma and Grandpa. No fun nick names. Actually, I’m a little surprised my Major General grandfather didn’t have us call him sir.

  12. Janis McCurry

    July 16, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    Oh, Peggy, maybe you can call your DH “Sir.” 🙂


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