Why we call parents ‘parents’

Why do we call our parents Mum, Dad and other similar words? Researchers tend to say that those words come from the sounds babies make, but this isn’t a very satisfactory answer. Probably all societies call parents by names and nicknames that mean they are parents. This is very strange when you think about it. Whenever someone is special we give them a proper name. Parents are very special but we give them common names.

This practice does not seem to change with adulthood or cultural progress. In modern society, a father will typically get upset if you, as his child, called him by his personal name. On the other hand, you will get upset if he did not call your dog Charlie but any other word indicating a dog. ‘I am your father’, he will argue, and draw on his biological knowledge. Whereas you will give a number of cultural reasons why your dog is special.

Traditionally, the relationship between language and reality is viewed from two fundamental perspectives.[i] One sees the mind as a sort of computer that would allow the child to identify her real parents. The other perspective sees it as a sociocultural entity, so that such a reality could not be something the child logically discovers, but something that is created in interaction with others.

This theoretical dichotomy is probably as unhelpful as arguing with your parents over who is special and why. It means that science does not understand words that are central to our sense of reality. Indeed, it is true that parenthood has a biological basis, but it is also true that parenting is a markedly cultural activity. Should we not elucidate this question before attempting to solve any other big mysteries? This has been in my mind ever since I became a parent myself.

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