Last year, the writer Elissa Strauss reported that cool, modern mothers have adopted “mama” as their go-to maternal sobriquet because “mom” and “mommy” are too associated with stereotypes about motherhood (as one Brooklyn mother put it, the terms “conjure something insipid and suburban”). Mama, on the other hand, bucks tradition and serves as a new identity for hip, alternative, progressive mothers.
Dads are just fine with “dad” and “daddy,” Strauss argued, because “being a male with offspring comes with few linguistic, and therefore identity, traps.”
Sure, dad may not be as socially loaded as mom is for women, but its popularity is also seemingly waning among the urban, cultured class. On any given Sunday in a gentrified Brooklyn coffee shop, there are just as many white, upper-middle class “papas” in their thirties and forties—many of them bearded and tattooed—as there are white, upper-middle class dads.
There are polite requests for cookies from “papas,” who decline at first because the cookies aren’t non-GMO, but ultimately cave after considerable cajoling and whining, at which point they’re reassured: “You’re the best papa in the world.”
Papa peaked in popularity around 1870, according to Google Books Ngram Viewer, which analyzes linguistic trends in books written in English and published in the U.S.
The parental honorific began its slow decline over the next hundred years, until it was finally displaced by “dad” in 1970. Dad still reigns today, but anecdotal evidence suggests “papa” is making a comeback, perhaps as part of a return to the authentic and artisanal—the old made new again—in hipster circles.
While “papa” hasn’t infiltrated the mainstream the way mama has, many fathers are beginning to set themselves apart from the all-American, Leave It to Beaver dad.
“I just think ‘dad’ and ‘mom’ are very Saved by the Bell-ish,” said Will Grose, 36, a Brooklyn father of three boys under the age of 5: Axel, Oscar (“Ozzy”), and Balthazar (“Bo”). He estimated that half of the children in his 4-year-old son’s Williamsburg preschool call their fathers “papa.”
“I don’t know if my wife and I explicitly made decisions about what we were going to call ourselves,” said Grose, who works as a software engineer at Google. “Maybe there’s some by proxy indoctrination that happens so that you just end up doing what everyone else is doing.”
Justin Underwood, a 34-year-old IT professional in Virginia and father to a 3-year-old daughter named Afton Love, refers to himself as a “feminist papa bear” and thinks the “dad” sobriquet is “very bland and drab,” he said. “There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”
Underwood also thinks “dad” is antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term,” he said, “like a dad with a twist.”
Stacie Johnson, a 38-year-old artist who lives in nearby Bushwick with her husband, Tyler Myers, and 3-year-old daughter, Willa, said she and Myers thought “mama” and “papa” sounded unique and didn’t make them think of their own parents (“mom and dad”).
“Also, I had heard little kids using ‘papa’ before and it sounds so cute,” Johnson added, noting that those children may have been referring to their grandfathers, “but it seemed more applicable for us as a replacement for ‘dad.’”
Most changes in the way we address people are linked to changing social and cultural practices, and in this case that practice is parenting.
“Perhaps ‘papa’ is representative of a general leaning towards wanting to be your child’s friend as opposed to having a more hierarchical relationship,” said Armin Brott, aka Mr. Dad, guru of all things fatherhood-related (he hosts a popular podcast and has published a dozen books on the subject, including the New York Times bestseller The Expectant Father: The Ultimate Guide For Dads-to-Be).
“‘Papa’ is a little hipper, a little more familiar and friendlier than ‘dad,’” Brott said.
That’s the main reason 49-year-old Mario Zermeno, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, pushed his 9-year-old daughter, Maxine, to call him “papa” from a young age.
“I have fond memories of my dad, but we weren’t that close, so when I became a parent I wanted to be a little more approachable,” said Zermeno, who has always called his Mexican father “dad” and his Polish mother “ma.”
“I also thought ‘papa’ sounded cool and ‘dad’ was a little too formal, in part because of my relationship with my own father.”
Certainly, ethnically mixed familial backgrounds have played a role in the resurgence of papa.
For 38-year-old Veronica Phung from San Diego, her own Portuguese background and husband’s French family are why they decided to go by “mama” and “papa” when they had their two daughters.
“My husband’s sister definitely set the precedent with her children, who call her ‘maman’ and their father ‘papa,’” in keeping with her sister-in-law’s French background, Phung said. “It just seemed natural for us to do the same.”
Fathers who aren’t first generation immigrants yet still insist on going by “papa” are seemingly doing so for the same reasons mothers are increasingly going by mama: to differentiate themselves from their parents’ generation and from the stereotypical suburban American dads.
“Parents who consider themselves to be young and hip don’t want to be old-fashioned and they think to themselves, ‘My dad wasn’t a co-parent like I am,’” said Carmen Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College. “What seems to be going on here is a kind of linguistic reclaiming, where an old-fashioned term like ‘papa’ is being brought back but with new meaning.”
The way we refer to different things—people of different ethnic groups, different social groups—is constantly changing because the social ideas about those groups are changing, said Professor Fought. “Anything in society as it changes—the way people feel about something—a lot of times the terminology will change with it. Changing terminology around parenting makes perfect sense to me because it has to do with age and aging.
“There are always women who say, ‘Don’t call me grandma, it makes me feel so old.’ It’s that idea—when young people or young parents think about ‘dad,’ they think of their own parents... There’s lots of terminology now about different arrangements people have with parenting. It’s a kind of linguistic reclaiming, where these old-fashioned terms are being brought back but with a new meaning.”
“Papa” is both a cultural status marker and codified identity label—a way of signaling your hip, progressive values to other in-the-know parents.
But the attempt to eschew parental stereotypes by ditching “dad” for “papa” is now something of a cliché itself, in the same way that singular children’s names are no longer unique.
There are more young girls named Lavender in bougie Brooklyn circles than there are young girls named Lindsey, and William is the odd one out in his preschool playgroup with Pilot, Magnus, and Roman. The trend toward unique baby names has become a parody of itself, hence the internet’s various Hipster Baby Name generators.
Celebrities have mirrored this trend over the past 10 years: “Kind Mama” Alicia Silverstone named her first son Bear Blu; Kate Winslet named hers Bear Rocknroll; the Paltrow-Martins gave us Apple and Moses, and Kimye brought North and Saint West into the world.
While “mama” was once associated with wellness-obsessed celebrity mothers like Paltrow and Silverstone, the honorific has entered the mainstream in the past 10 years.
“Papa” may well follow suit, but for now its popularity is mostly confined to urban hipsters and yuppies intent on creating new identities that distinguish them from regular old dads.
Zach Rosenberg, who runs the blog 8BitDad and is part of a “Dad Bloggers” Facebook group with more than 1,100 members from around the globe, said he wasn’t aware of the rise of “papa.”
He polled 32 fathers from around the U.S.—California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Utah, Maryland, Nevada, and New York—and found that the only one among them whose children call him “papa” lives in New York.
So maybe “dad” has a little bit of steam left. Just don’t tell mama.