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Of moms and men: what two small words reveal about big social changes

The Oxford English Dictionary’s evidence files reveal an interesting trend: in recent years, the number of phrases designating types of mothers (on the model of [X] mother) has grown much faster than the number of comparable terms for fathers. Since 1990, OED has tracked roughly 40% more maternal terms than their paternal counterparts. But why are there more kinds of mothers than fathers?

From soccer moms to yummy mummies

Mom’s high lexical profile dates back at least as far as the 1996 US Presidential election, when a new demographic group, the suburban soccer mom, was regarded as a crucial category of swing voter (although the term itself goes back much further, to 1973). Since then, pollsters, pundits, and politicians have coined ever more variations on the theme, describing post-9/11 security moms, northern hockey moms, and pervasive minivan moms. In the UK, where impossibly attractive female parents are yummy mummies, that convenient rhyme has also begotten the hapless slummy mummy and the misguided chummy mummy. Most recently, the stereotype of the pushy Chinese Tiger Mother, coined in the title of Amy Chua’s book, has dominated playground conversations from Los Angeles to London, as parents debate the relative merits of a demanding, allegedly Asian method of child-rearing and a lenient so-called Western style. The speed with which this term leapt from publisher press-release to common parlance suggests that it struck a deep chord in contemporary society.

Of course, when it comes to compounds, nouns can be modifier (mom [X]) as well as modified. Thus, maternal neologizing has brought us unfashionable mom jeans and unsightly mummy tummies. Women who cease working to spend time with their young children are on the mommy track, and may choose to write a mommy blog. In most cases, we see versions of these terms with both the American mom/mommy and the British mum/mummy, suggesting that similar forces are in play on both sides of the Atlantic. It is tempting to chalk this international lexical explosion up to yet another mom term: the so-called mommy wars between stay-at-home mothers and their working counterparts. As a new generation of mothers navigates between the twin shoals of neglectful career mom and overbearing helicopter parent, new terminology is spawned of necessity by a language struggling to stay abreast.  Of course there are new dad phrases in the OED files as well (dad dancing is among the better attested ones), but not as many. Another masculine word, however, has been dwarfing both parents as a creator of new words and compounds: man.

Masculinity redefined

Man has begotten a bevy of new phrases in recent years. In fact, a semi-scientific survey of the OED files shows as many compounds built on man– as on mother words and father words combined. Manbag, a man’s handbag, hit the scene in 1968, and there has been an avalanche of similar formations in the years since. Many of these follow the example of man bag in referring to a male version of something typically regarded as feminine, like mandal (a blend of man and sandal), or man boobs (self-explanatory; aka moobs). Some man- words reveal consciousness of a potential homosexual subtext, like man hug (denoting a half-handshake/half-embrace between two men; aka bro hug) or man date; others, like man cave or man flu, denote amusing male peculiarities. What all of these terms share (besides their first three letters) is a sense of modern masculinity as an area of flux and re-examination. Like motherhood, manhood is a popular topic of conversation today simply because we have so much to say about it, and our vocabulary is doing its best to keep up. Cultural change, as always, is the mother of lexical invention.


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