In considering one’s male parent, we could discuss how the similarities in wordforms across different, unrelated languages – papa, baba, abba, appa, dada, tata – have a basis in child language acquisition processes, in the same way as mama, mae, amma forms. The most common intelligible syllables first produced in infant babbling are ma, pa, ba, with ta and da following soon after – consonant sounds produced forward in the mouth, and open vowel “a”, which are easily articulated. These early vocalisations came to be associated by adults with infants’ caretakers – ma forms strongly associated with “mother”, and the others with “father”.
We could also explore how the word for “father” played a crucial role in establishing relationships between language families. Late-18th-century scholars noted how pitar in Sanskrit (the literary, educated language of ancient and medieval India) was strikingly similar to the Latin and Greek pater – this, together with thousands of other correspondences, helped them realise that these languages were related, descending from a common prehistorical ancestor, Proto-Indo-European (PIE).
“Father” in languages like Old English, Old Norse and German, however, has an initial “f” sound: fæder, fathir, Vater. This correspondence led to their recognising a pattern in historical sound change: the sounds “p, t, k” in PIE changed into “f, th, h” in the Proto-Germanic branch of languages (the common ancestor of Germanic languages like English). The pattern is illustrated in Latin versus English: pēs , pedis vs foot, tertius vs third, canis vs hound.
Then there are more contemporary, racier dimensions. The term “daddy” developed different – nonfamilial, sexual – meanings. The earliest documentation, in the early 1900s United States (initially chiefly in African-American usage), identifies a daddy as a woman’s male lover or husband, with a sugar daddy an elderly man who lavishes gifts on a young woman. The element of dominance also characterises daddy as used in homosexual relationships, documented from the early/mid-20th century – the masculine older man, interested in younger partners, with the implication of his more active or dominant role, or, in prison slang, the one who provides physical protection to a typically younger and more vulnerable inmate. This meaning of daddy – of an older or authority figure, who provides security, with whom there is sexual interest – persists to this day, establishing itself especially in internet slang from 2010 as a term indicating respect or adoration for a male authority figure or celebrity.
Language and meanings may evolve; the strength, protection and adoration encompassed in the word persist, and are still fatherly qualities to celebrate.