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What are the origins and differences between these two? Same for Granddad/Grandpa?

Why was there the need for the two different names?

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The Italian for grandmother is nonna. I have always assumed that nan came from a shortening and Americanization of it. But maybe this is because I have known several Italian-Americans who called their grandmothers nana (which is nicely parallel with mama). If nan for Grandma (as opposed to nanny) also exists in England, this derivation wouldn't work for BE. – Peter Shor May 23 '11 at 14:26
@Peter Shor: It is much more likely to be that mama, papa, baba, nana, etc. are words for these things because of the similarity in how infants babble (regardless of the language around them) and the general order in which they develop the ability to articulate sounds. So, these words "aren't inherited but are constantly recreated" by infants. More info in this language log article. – Kosmonaut May 23 '11 at 15:22
@Kosmonaut: Of course, you're right, but why nana for grandmother, and not gaga? I still think it could be the Italian influence, at least in the U.S. – Peter Shor May 23 '11 at 18:00
@Peter Shor: The first sound a kid is going to be able to make is generally mama, and since the mother is usually considered the central figure to the child's life, mama gets attached to her. Then, the next sound usually mastered by the child, baba or papa, gets attributed to the father. Note that, in a few countries (often where paternity is in much higher regard than maternity), these words are reversed: Georgian mama = father and dada = mother. After mother and father, there is more variation, because there isn't such a clear "third place" adult in the child's life. – Kosmonaut May 23 '11 at 18:08
For example, the word nanna in Greek means "aunt". So, it's mostly a matter of that culture and social structure, some variation, and self-organization of the words over time. The /g/ sound in gaga, by the way, takes longer to acquire, being a velar sound produced in the back of the throat. (I should say that certainly there can be influence of one language's word on another, but with these kinship terms it be really misleading — a lot of false positives.) – Kosmonaut May 23 '11 at 18:10
up vote 6 down vote accepted


The word nan for grandma is a shortening of the word nana. Both of these words probably are child pronunciations of the word nanny. Etymonline describes this word as originating as a child's word for "female adult other than mother". This is why nanny is used as the word for a caretaker of children (since the 18th century) as well as a grandmother (since the early 20th century). Etymonline also notes that nanna is also a Greek word for aunt.

Grandma has similar origins. The word mama is a child's form of mother. In languages like German and English, the parents of one's parents have the grand- prefix applied to create their names. The original form of grandma was grandmama (18th century, OED). So this is simply the result of applying the grand- prefix to the child word. Then, like ma was derived as a shortening of mama, grandma evolved from grandmama.

As you can imagine, dad and pa/papa are also child words for father.

Why have multiple words

The reason there are all of these names is the same reason why most of us have nicknames for certain people or things based on childhood pronunciations. Whether that means calling your blanket a banky or your sister sessa, most of us form an emotional connection to things from this time period. Even the alternate word for stomach, tummy comes from a child pronunciation. Child language becomes a major part of family life for years, and it makes sense that some words are extended beyond the domain of early childhood development.

We retain these different forms of these words for at least two reasons: (1) each of us gives these words a differing level of significance (who wants to replace the word they use for their loved ones?) and (2) we often have different words for things that we individually use that are appropriate for different registers, e.g. kitty, cat, and feline.

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I suspect the grand- is more Romance than Germanic: compare French grand-père with German Großvater. On the other hand great-, as in great-grandfather, is Germanic. – Henry May 23 '11 at 17:22
I must second @Henry — according to the Sendung mit der Maus, the German groß- is a rather recent (three hundred years? five hundred? something like that) calque of the French grand-. – RegDwigнt May 23 '11 at 17:50
@Henry, @RegDwight: I didn't say anything about the origin of grand-, I was merely stating a fact about two languages that do this (to show that it isn't just an English thing), and how that part isn't part of the infant babbling phenomenon. – Kosmonaut May 23 '11 at 17:54
In my family it was Grammy and Grampy for the grandparents (Gram & Gramp for short), and the great-grandparents (well, one of them) was either Greatfather or Pepe. I never knew my great-grandmother, but my brother called her Meme or Greatmother. – Darwy Jun 9 '11 at 23:45

There are many different words for parents and grandparents in English, and I suspect in other languages too. For example "Father", "Pa", "Pop", "Dad", "Daddy".

There are no systematic differences between them, except in terms of formality, and in some cases there are class associations.

In the case of grandparents, many families find it useful to have two different words, which they can then use to distinguish the two grandfathers and the two grandmothers.

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The word for "grandmother" in Italian is "nonna". Look at these maps of the distribution of Italian-Americans in the U.S. and the distribution of people who call their grandmothers "nana" in the U.S.. They match very well. In many cases, the root for nan as a nickname for grandmother may be the Italian influence.

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protected by RegDwigнt Dec 2 '11 at 19:02

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