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Mommy dearest

Susan Reimer opens this morning’s column about the perils of motherhood thus: “Any mom worth her carpool car keys will recognize Elizabeth, the fraught and embattled mother in Anne Lamott's new book, ‘Imperfect Birds.’ "

Gradually, over the past couple of decades, mom has become an acceptable synonym for mother in journalism — no longer thought to be too casual, informal or personal.

I don’t much care for it, though I have schooled myself to endure it as an editor. But it’s a minor irritation, like my grumpiness that the Realtors have snookered journalists into writing home instead of house. I don’t think that the irritation is a residue of my having read Philip Wylie’s diatribe against “Momism” in Generation of Vipers. (One of the benefits of youthful unsupervised reading is the development of skill in spotting crackpots.)

No, it’s a preference for a little more formality that puts me out of step with the times.* You call her “Mom,” but I will refer to her as “your mother.” (“Your mother” is how I speak of Kathleen to Alice and J.P., and it is also how my father spoke of my mother to my sisters and me.) Just as you may call him “Pop-pop,” but I will refer to your grandfather. You have discarded courtesy titles, but I will continue mistering. You may like to mention political figures by their nicknames, but I am not intimate with the great.

Two things to be said for formality are that it offers respect and that it creates a distance within which genuine intimacy can be recognized and treasured.


*I hear your gasp at this revelation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:04 AM | | Comments (13)


Sure, "mother" could have been substituted for "mom." But the words "car pool keys" give a certain flavor to the sentence that is supported by the use of "mom."

I would ignore the informality in favor of the excellent imagery conveyed.

On this I also strive mightily to mask my irritation. When I can, I make the change to "mother," though my colleagues call me fuddy-duddy. I stand accused and guilty as charged. Besides, in my world, the more familiar form would be "mama," not "mom." Then, too, this calls to my mind my "gramma," who used to say that we started down the road to hell when children became billy goats ("kids").

As a merely early-middle-aged fuddy-duddy, I say "your mother" to my daughter when speaking of my wife. I feel the awkwardness of this, but I have no better locution. "Your mom" would be even worse.

fyi, it's a terrible book with dull, unlikeable characters. But I'm not a mom so maybe I just couldn't relate.

On "house" versus "home," it bugs me to be asked, "Is that an apartment or a home?" I say, "Excuse me, but my apartment is my home."

It's not /just/ a matter of formality; the distinction between "mom" and "mother" captures something else about the ladies in question. For example, there's no such thing as a "soccer mother." (I believe this is what Tim is saying in the first comment.)

In any event, there's a difference in thinking about how mothers should be referred to in print and the complicated dynamics of intra-family familiarity. One simply cannot create rules for how non-familials should address their elders. I was once addressed in the vocative as "Man" by the 9-year-old friend of my stepdaughter, which was a kind of generic solution she devised to this problem.

In the end, like the use of formal in other languages, it comes down to the specific interactions between individuals. If your friend's grandfather insists that you, too, call him Pop-pop, is it standoffish to decline this invitation to intimacy? I remember a somewhat awkward transition period upon early adulthood when I was encouraged to stop referring to my best friend's mother as "Mrs. XXXX" and start calling her by her first name. It took me a good decade to do that.

I don't like nicknames for couples. Brangelina and Tomkat are disrespectful and somewhat derogatory.

Thank you for saying you are not intimate witht he great. Most writers are not. The first story I ever wrote for a newspaper, some nitwit, not an editor, switched William for Bill in reference to Shakespeare. I felt like an idiot. I never would have called him Bill. Bill wasn't even invented then.

I couldn't agree more. My family on both sides of the North/South divide refer to parents as " your Mother," and "your Father." This buddy-buddy system smacks of the "I'm not your parent, I'm your friend" syndrome. Childhood is confusing enough for the wretched creatures, without confusing parents with the rest of the population.

I was with you until the last sentence. That sounds like a cover statement for someone who has been "caught" in a cultural conflict. In doing so, you have shifted from nomenclature to experience. That intimacy which is found in the midst of "formality" must, at times, be expressed. The question is not whether the intimacy exists; it is how to verbalize it.

"Mom" is my name for the woman who is my "mother." As an editor I do not put up with it.

The realtors have also snookered journalists into capitalizing the word "realtor".

What really makes my hair curl is hearing "realtor" mispronounced as "realator." The extra syllable must be silent when it's written.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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