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The forgotten language of fathers

The history of the English language reveals some different and even surprising associations in some rare words and meanings alluding to the paternal parent. Some of these largely forgotten words may be worthy of a revival: why not be a philopater and promise Dad you’ll patrizate?

The gold standard

Are you father-waur or father-better? These early Scots words mean ‘worse than one’s father’ and ‘better than one’s father,’ respectively, establishing dear old dad as the standard by which one is judged. In the 1535 Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland, the British chieftain Caratacus is quoted as rallying his men by reminding them of their fathers’ valor and urging “lat ws nocht be cawit fader war” (let us not be called father-waur). If being father-waur was dishonorable, being father-better was aspirational. The Scottish clergyman Robert Baillie closed a 1645 letter to the Earl of Lauderdale with greetings to the Earl’s wife and to his son “whom I pray God to bless, and make father-better.” At first glance, this seems like an odd thing to say (essentially, may God bless your son, and make him better than you), but it suggests an ambition that is no less familiar to today’s parents—the desire to see one’s children do (even) better than oneself.

Like father, like progeny

The obsolete verb patrizate means ‘to take after or to follow the example of one’s father.’ It is based on a Latin word patrissare, in the same sense, which is known to us from the comic plays of Plautus and Terence. On a similar note, but representing a much later development, is patrist, Gordon Rattray Taylor’s sociological term for ‘a person whose behavior or attitude is modeled on or dominated by his or her father.’ So the next time your father sits you down for a heart-to-heart, rather than exhorting you to follow his example, he could suggest that you patrizate, or be a patrist.

A more feminine side

Flowers are usually associated with mothers more than fathers, so it is striking to see that father-dust, which sounds like an indelicate reference to paternal cremains, is actually an old poetic term for pollen. Why? Floral reproduction doesn’t have much in common with its animal counterpart, but technically, the pollen comes from the male part of a flower, and is transported to a female ovule.

Today’s dads may often count cooking prowess amongst their accomplishments, but that was hardly the case in the early 20th century. So how did pot and pan come to mean ‘dad’ at that time? There are two layers of development involved. Pot and pan is rhyming slang in Australia and the UK for “old man”, which in turn has been a colloquial term for husband and father since the 17th century.

Political aspirations

Even non-political fathers may adopt the linguistic trappings of high office. The adjective gubernatorial is familiar in the sense ‘relating to the governor of a US state,’ but during the 19th century there was a vogue for using it as a synonym of ‘paternal,’ based on the slang use of governor or guv’nor to mean ‘father’. The Oxford English Dictionary records this usage from a young Benjamin Disraeli (referring to a journal article written by his father as “the gubernatorial article” in an 1825 letter), and by Henry James in Portrait of a Lady (1880): “His mother, on the other hand, was paternal, and even, according to the slang of the day, gubernatorial.”


Philopater is a rare word meaning ‘a person who loves their father’ or ‘a patriot’. Its second element, –pater, the Latin word for father, is the origin of many father-related words, including some mentioned above, and was once a common slang term for ‘father’ in some British circles. Philo- from the Greek for love, is a common element in many English words, including philosophy. One of its rarer offspring, philoprogeneity, forms a nice counterpoint to philopater: it means ‘love for one’s children.’ Philoprogeneity is an inescapable quality of parenthood, for fathers and mothers alike.

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