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Are You My Mother?


Here's something remarkable about Mother's Day, which is coming up on Sunday: It is still named for Mother. Mother, like Father, has had a rough century. Time was, everyone said things like `I saw your mother yesterday' and `How's your mother?' Nowadays we are at least as likely to hear her referred to as just plain Mom.

(Soundbite of montage of past NPR segments)

Ms. SUSIE SUH (Recording Artist): My mom, she had read about in the paper. They were advertising...

Mr. CHARLES YESUWAN: ...and I just tell them that my mom is Chinese and my dad is Taiwanese. A lot of my friends...

LIANE HANSEN (NPR): ...even your mom's--on a stamp. From member station...

KATIA DUNN (NPR): His father was an editor for The Washington Post, and his mom a writer.

RENEE MONTAGNE (NPR): ...called Love Mom, Not Wal-Mart.

Ms. SAMANTHA HOLLY(ph) (American University Student): ...and put them all over my mom's vanity mirror.

Unidentified Woman: I'm a mom.

State Representative TROY WOODRUFF (Republican; Vincennes, Indiana): Well, Mom and Dad and Grandma still live in...

SIEGEL: Asif Agha is a linguist and anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in language and social relations. Over the past century, he says, usage of `mom' has changed significantly.

Professor ASIF AGHA (University of Pennsylvania): The term `mom' goes back to the late 1890s, early 1900s, and in its earliest usages, it was used always by a child for his or her own mother, and most often in direct address. And each of these aspects of that early usage have been expanded or extended.

SIEGEL: `Mom' is no longer used only by children. It is no longer a term reserved for our own mother. And it's not used only as a form of address, but also when we speak of a mother in the third person. It's a casual, intimate way of speaking of a parent. It's almost as if the way we speak of our parents with a sibling is the same way we speak with a stranger.

Prof. AGHA: Of course, it doesn't imply that one shares a parent with this stranger, but merely using this expression likens the encounter with a stranger to an encounter with a sibling.

SIEGEL: It was not ever thus. It was proper to speak of parents the old-fashioned way in the days of World War II and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

(Soundbite of speech)

President FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: I want every father and every mother who had a son in the service to know...

SIEGEL: But today, in the very same solemn context, it's the dressed-down, casual Friday version of mother and father that we're likely to hear.

(Soundbite of speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: ...and our military families, represented here this evening by Sergeant Norwood's mom and dad, Janet and Bill Norwood.

SIEGEL: `Mom and dad' suggests something warm and fuzzy about parents, an innocent idealization of family values. There are some contexts when `mother and father' still seem more appropriate. Think of Bob Dylan warning of a new age a-comin'.

(Soundbite of "The Times They Are A-Changin'")

Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Come, mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don't criticize what you can't understand.

SIEGEL: Just wouldn't pack the same wallop if he'd said `All you moms and dads.' And if we spoke of Oedipus killing his dad and marrying his mom, that just wouldn't sound like something worth poking your eyes out over. Professor Agha agrees.

Prof. AGHA: Certainly for that kind of story, it would be bizarre because, after all, that is the story which is the very opposite of family values. It's the tragedy where classic family values are shattered. So that would be, in fact, a kind of a dark irony, I suppose, were one to say something like that.

SIEGEL: When it's really bad, it's time for `mother and father,' not `mom and dad.'

Prof. AGHA: That's right, though interestingly enough I have noticed that in newspapers and magazines, when horrific events are described--for example, a child being run over by a car in the presence of his mother--frequently the mother will be referred to: `as the mom looked on,' `as his mom looked on.'

SIEGEL: Of course, the newspapers and magazines are full of moms: stay-at-home moms, soccer moms.

Prof. AGHA: This set of terms is a kind of new lexicon of social types. I mean, it is really an extension of the phenomenon of a mom and a dad or even moms, but now made into social types in much more specific ways. So we not only have a soccer mom, but we also have `single mom' and `celebrity mom' and a `stay-at-work mom.' And very recently I read in Jet magazine `a stay-at-home, bake-cookies mom.' I've also seen `fashion mom' and `fitness mom' and even `techie mom.'

In other words, what we're finding is that more and more aspects of lifestyle are being incorporated into our reckoning of social types, and that the figure of the mom is now being classified and described in more and more specific ways, in connection to more and more specific contexts. And in each of them, the type of relationship to a child is at issue, but so also is the kind of lifestyle that the mother has.

SIEGEL: As Professor Agha said earlier, the word `mom' began as one that children used. And while it has gone universal, there is an even more juvenile usage that has not. We may not be surprised to hear President Bush speak of a soldier's mom and dad, but if he had pointed to the first lady's gallery during the State of the Union address and spoken of the sergeant's mommy and daddy, we would all be gagging. We seem to have chosen to call our parents not what toddlers call them, but what adolescents call them. And if that's the case, it squares with a broader phenomenon of the 20th century, the expansion of adolescence.

Prof. AGHA: The age at which adolescence ends has been increasing. The habits of the young are being emulated by the not-so-young. So it is really the association of mom and dad with youth.

SIEGEL: And as for the future, anthropologist Asif Agha reports this in formal research.

Prof. AGHA: I asked my 10-year-old the other day about it, and he said that `mom and dad' is now what everyone says; `mother and father' are just formal words that nobody uses. That's his point of view from the front lines in fifth grade.

SIEGEL: So on Sunday, it may be Mother we are honoring, but for the future, `mom's' the word.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You can learn more about the origins of Mother's Day at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.