Mountain Lingo: Where Did “Ma-Maw” and “Pa-Paw” Come From?

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My mother’s family hail from the Virginia Beach area and I always called her parents “grandma” and “granddad”; however, my dad’s family were Appalachian proud – living at the “head of the holler” and as early as I can remember, his parents were my “mamaw” and “papaw”.

Growing up, I never gave these titles much thought.  Grandma and Granddad taught me how to feed the squirrels outside their cozy Virginia Beach colonial home, while my Mamaw and Papaw taught me how to skin the squirrels that were brave enough to show their faces within a mile’s radius of their home, after we’d done filled ’em full of buckshot!

All four of these individuals were incredible people whom I miss dearly.

After I moved outside of my “Appalachian comfort zone”, I soon realized that not everyone in America was fortunate as I was to have had a Mamaw and a Papaw.

I never imagined I’d have to explain to someone what a mamaw was, but I’ve found myself doing just that.

Lately, I have grown fascinated with Appalachian-English, particularly of the words we use and have heard our entire lives, but are completely foreign to any of yu’ns who might be read’n this from some w’ars else’t!

What are the origins of these titles?  Not everyone is in agreement (imagine that in 2017 America!); however, it seems that the prevailing theory is that “Mamaw” comes from a Lowland Scot term “Ma Maw”, meaning, “My Mother”.

“Ma” was used when addressing one’s own mother, while “Maw” is used when addressing others of one’s own or others mothers.

But what about Pa-paw? Where did this word come from?

Unfortunately, this is a question that no one seems capable of providing a satisfactory answer and any Google search of the term pawpaw will reveal dozens of articles about Appalachia’s forgotten fruit tree, the PawPaw.

Though there continues to be debate regarding the origins of “Pa-paw” and “Ma-maw” the titles seem almost exclusively limited to Appalachia, the American South and parts of Texas — which shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the fact that Texas was made possible thanks to the blood and sweat of Appalachia’s native sons.

Though the origins of these terms may not be 100% clear, what is beyond certain is that if you had a “Papaw” the odds are that he was tough as nails, knew had to fix what was broken and had hands that were as rough as a cob.  Are we right?

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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18 COMMENTS

  1. I had a Mamaw and a Papaw. My kids do also. We are WV natives. My sister’s husband’s parents prefer their grandkids call them Memaw and Pepaw (long “e”). That was a new one for me. They are also from WV.

  2. I also had a Mamaw and Papaw. But, I have a different opinion on the origin of the word Mamaw. I think it comes from the French word for Mama, ‘Maman’. When spoken in French with the nasal ‘an’, it sounds like Mamaw. If you remember your pre-French and Indian War history of the area, the French had claim to western territories north of the Ohio, while the British claimed the parts south. Needless to say, the people and cultures mixed in these territories regardless of the river. To reinforce this idea I want to share the following. As a child our best friends were from deeper in Appalachia and were part Cherokee. Whenever my friend would get a minor hurt, she would exclaim ‘Ouch, that blesses!’. I always thought that was unusual, until I took French language classes and learned that ‘blesser’ In French Means ‘to hurt’. Makes so much sense to me now. I haven’t seen any writings on the sharing of French, English, and Native American culture in Appalachia. If anyone knows of any good books, please let me know!

    • I am from Southern West Virginia, Mingo County, and have this opinion of MaMaw and PaPaw. It matters not at all of the origin of these words, not at all I say. The only thing that matters is the love I received from them. The direction in life they each passed on to me and, goodness gracious, that lip smacking food that Mamaw used to make..oh my goodness. Papaw was a tough hard rock coal miner with hands of steel but a heart of softness, love and understanding. He could fix anything, make it as well, and such a hard worker. He dedicated his life to family and was always there in good and tough times. I was fortunate to have them during my formative years and learned so much from them. There is not a day that goes by that they are not in my thoughts and, even tho, they have gone on to that place not made with hands eternal in the heavens they live on with me in my heart.

  3. What I wouldn’t give for another day with my Pa Paw. He called me his “chuger lump” which really was “sugar lump”. He loved to fix up old cars and ride four wheelers on the trails. I was his first granddaughter and I thought the world revolved around him. He would take me riding on his old orange tractor and let me “drive”. He was so special and I’m so glad he got to meet my children before he passed.

  4. Thank you for the article. In eastern NC, there are a lot of memaws, including me. Would the me not ma mean we are the son’s mother? just wondering. I always thought i would be Granny. lol but memaw it is.

  5. I’m about as Appalachian as one can be…born at the head of a holler in Harlan County, Kentucky. My daddy was a coal miner and ‘Mother’ was a true mountain woman. “Mam-aw and Pap-aw” were the only terms we ever used for our grandparents and they were terms of endearment as much as monikers. Thankfully, those two words are still alive and well in our neck of the woods. I’ve always said that “Mommy” (now “Mom”) and “Mamaw” are the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard.

  6. We always called my parents grandma and grandpa to our kids. But for some reason my daughter, as soon as she was talking, insisted on Meemaw and Peepaw. I have no idea where it came from. Maybe it’s hard wired somehow? By the way, Meemaw loved it. Peepaw, not so much. 🙂

  7. Yep…lots of Lowland Scot snd early Elizabethan English in then thar hills and hollers. I always thought “PaPaw” was a shortend form of referring to my Pa’s Pa, my Dad’s dad. Amn the same for my “MaMaw”. But, my folks came from Omar and Cow Creek so how should I know? I do love WVA.

    • I grew up on cow creek and mine were mamaw and papaw. Even though i have lived in ohio for years I am mamaw to my grand daughter😊

    • I am from Mingo County but have lived away for a number of years. I am Papaw to my grand kids, did not teach it to them but they just called me that when they began talking. I still have the old home place and go back once in awhile and never want to leave one I get there. While there I visit my Papaw’s and Mamaw’s graves along with mother’s and dad’s. They are buried in the back yard after all. I was fortunate to know my great grand parents as well; called them Ma and Pa, lol, sure miss them. They were both mountain people through and through as are most of my family. When one of us passes on we are buried beside the one that went before us, an old family tradition. Life, work, and necessity force us to leave the mountains but death always takes us back to our final resting place. One day it will be my turn and I will be with all of them again. God is good all of the time. All of the time God is good!

  8. I was born and raised in Iowa, but Daddy is from Logan, WV. Even now that I’m in my 50s, I still call him that. I grew up with him calling me “Sis,” something he still does. My mom is an Iowan, and I imagine I called her mommy when I was young. My mom’s parents were grandma and grandpa; Daddy’s mom was mamaw. I only saw her twice and I’m sorry I didn’t get to know her. The two different cultures allowed me to easily differentiate who I was talking about, although I did have to explain “mamaw” to my friends. I like Gail’s and John’s theories on how the terms originated. Definitely something to think about.

  9. My brother-in- law, who was from the Eastern Shore of VA not Appalachia, taught my nieces & nephews to call my mother & father MaMaw & PaPaw. We never used it in our family. We called our grandmother granny & our grandfather grandpa & we were the ones from Appalachia!

  10. I’m from southern West Virginia and my grandparents were Mamaw & Papaw. They were Indian with the last name Redeem. The real deal country hillbillies !!! I consider myself the same 🙂 We are all coal miners going back 4 generations & we all serve our country proudly !!! I’m so fortunate to have been born here 🙂

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