Illustration by Erik Mace for Yahoo Parenting
A generation ago, there was mom—as in soccer mom and mom jeans. That gave way to mommy, a word once reserved for little children and then co-opted by the culture at large to refer to any woman with small kids.
Now, get ready for mama. The word has gained ground recently thanks to celebrities, such as Alicia Silverstone, who refer to themselves as mamas, as well as companies and websites that have made the word part of their brand.
Considering all the positive things associated with the term, it’s no surprise that mama is gaining ground among new mothers.
“Mama sounds earthy and protective: it’s strong, authoritative, yet warm,” Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You Were Always Mom’s Favorite, tells Yahoo Parenting. “There’s an intimacy and tenderness to it.”
There’s more to mama than being a mama bear. Mama is an old-school maternal term in so many countries and cultures, and the fact that it’s been dusted off for a new generation suggests that modern moms want to reconnect to their families and cultural background.
“Mothers today are looking for authenticity, and mama is old-world and genuine, a term of endearment for grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the past,” Elissa Strauss, a writer who covers gender and culture, tells Yahoo Parenting, Strauss has written about the shift from mom and mommy to mama.
“Some people have criticized the movement as cultural appropriation of a word still widely used in Southern and African American communities, but I think there’s more to it than that—it’s about reclaiming your roots and feeling closer to previous generations.”
The mama trend may also be a response to contemporary culture’s judginess when it comes to moms and mommies. These are loaded terms these days, says Tannen, with mom implying suburban wholesomeness and mommy coming off as infantilizing women.
“Mom and mommy have become derogatory: mommy track, soccer mom,” says Tannen. “Using mama is a way to get away from this.”
There’s a continual shift in the way we address mothers, and it’s been going on for generations, says Tannen, as each generation of women redefines motherhood. There’s nothing new about one term falling out of favor and another rising in popularity.
“Americans generally like new terms for things, and whenever a word is used widely, something new will soon replace it,” she says. “When I was growing up, no one was ever referred to generically as mom; the word was mother. Mom would have been disrespectful if it was used by anyone but a woman’s family.”
And of course, it might be kids who are driving the mama trend. The “ma” sound is one of the first that toddlers make. Linguists theorize that because the sound can be made while a baby is latched on her mother’s nipple.
“The first two vowels most babies put together to make a sound is ma, or mama,” says Strauss. But as a term of maternal endearment, “ma” hasn’t made a comeback; it might be too rural and folksy, says Tannen,
So while mama is trending among hip urban and suburban mothers nationwide, eventually it’ll hit saturation point, and a new term will have to be coined.
Tannen guesses “mother”: it’s respectful, strong, yet warm and loving, she says—think mother love.