Mother and Father

David Schelhaas

The words father and mother come from similar roots, and the roots most likely come from the sounds an infant child makes before the child can talk. Papa, daddy, mama, ma, mom, and the variations in many different languages all seem to have been derived from the sounds that infant children make.

The word mother, as far as we know, is derived from the sound a child makes while nursing or suckling at the mother’s breast.

To mother is “to nurture”; to father is “to sire.” Ah, what language can teach about gender.

Hence mammal–from the same root word as mother–is our word for “any warm-blooded animal whose offspring are fed with milk secreted by female mammary [there’s that root again] glands.” Obviously, Father (papa, daddy) does not have similar association; it is simply a word coined to mirror a sound the child makes.

So these two words, mother and father, derive, really, from the vivid imaginations of parents interpreting the sounds of their pre-articulate children. Usually, we think of mother and father as nouns, mother being the female child-bearer and father being the male who has begotten the child.

Now I probably have not told you anything you did not know–yet. But when we use mother and father as verbs, we–or at least I–learn something new. I learned it from friends, a mother and father, who were talking recently. The mother said to her husband that she needed to be careful that she didn’t mother her adult children too much. By that she meant that she didn’t want to advise, prod, or watch out for them too much. Her husband then said, “Well, that’s okay; you can mother them, you’re their mother.” And she replied, “Well, why don’t you father them? ”

Bingo! The father tells me that he wisely kept quiet at that point, but the dialogue did teach him (and me) something about the difference between mother and father when they are used as verbs. When a woman mothers, she cares for, nurtures. When a man fathers, he impregnates. To mother is “to nurture”; to father is “to sire.” Ah, what language can teach about gender.

The prophet Isaiah brings together two related qualities of mothers, their nursing and nurturing, when in chapter 66 he first compares Jerusalem to a nursing mother and then compares God to a nurturing mother:

For thus saith the Lord, Behold I will extend peace to her [Jerusalem] like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream: then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon her sides, and be dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I [the Lord] comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

David Schelhaas teaches English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa. This essay is from the book Angling in the English Stream, published by Dordt Press.