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It Makes Perfect Sense That Hipster Dads Are Being Called ‘Papas’

The term of endearment is just as old, fancy and European as Belgian beer

Many beloved hipster practices are treated as new trends even when they are just infusing old things (see: selvedge denim, pickling, home brew) with the sheen of the new. Such is the case with the news that an indeterminate number of hipster dads in Brooklyn are now asking to be called “papa” instead of the more common “dad” or “daddy.”

Reporting at The Daily Beast, Lizzie Crocker notes that fast on the heels of modern mothers ditching “mom” for “mama” (see: Alicia Silverstone’s cookbook, The Kind Mama), cool fathers are now ditching dad for papa, a term that has mostly been on the decline:

Papa peaked in popularity around 1870, according to Google Books Ngram Viewer, which analyzes linguistic trends in books written in English and published in the U.S.

The parental honorific began its slow decline over the next hundred years, until it was finally displaced by “dad” in 1970. Dad still reigns today, but anecdotal evidence suggests “papa” is making a comeback, perhaps as part of a return to the authentic and artisanal — the old made new again — in hipster circles.

But as Crocker says, her evidence that it’s now a thing is completely anecdotal. “On any given Sunday in a gentrified Brooklyn coffee shop, there are just as many white, upper-middle class ‘papas’ in their thirties and forties — many of them bearded and tattooed — as there are white, upper-middle class dads,” she writes. One 36-year-old papa in the story claims at least half the kids in his son’s class in Williamsburg call their dads “papa,” too.

Papa usage showed up in English by way of the French in the 17th century—according to The Word Detective, a column about linguistics—and was favored by the upper classes. Its decline stateside, they speculate, could be about Americans parting ways with their stuffy heritage. The author writes:

To the extent that Europeans speaking English are influenced by other languages, I think that the greater traditional popularity of “Papa” in French, Italian, etc., is the reason you may have heard it more over there. The relative lack of traction of “Papa” in North America may also be partly due to immigrants in the 20th century wishing to shed the “old ways” and get with the “Daddy and Mommy” pattern of the New World.

The majority of people quoted in Crocker’s piece say they like “papa” because the term sounds more liberal or open-minded to them. “Unique,” “cute,” “hipper” and “less hierarchical” also show up as stated reasons — i.e., Papa is your pal; Dad is a stick in the mud. In other words, understandably, some parents nowadays probably want to be called something different than what they called their parents.

That said, when I polled my entire Facebook crew, not one of the 30somethings who replied said their children called their fathers “papa” — nearly all of them use “daddy.” That’s partly regional — I’m from the South and many of my acquaintances are, too. Down there, we always used “daddy” and “mama,” which is why the use of “mama” by coastal progressives strikes me as strange. “Mama,” to me, conjures a barefoot child standing knee-deep in a creek and hollering for her mother. Still, nary a Midwesterner or East Coast dweller in the poll copped to “papa.”

I do know one couple whose child calls their father “papa,” but their multicultural Euro roots explain it. “I think it’s the Italian-Spanish thing we have going,” she writes in a message. (Papa is the common term for dads in Italy.)

But there are a few clues in the term’s history that point to why “papa” could be due for a comeback in certain circles. One, it’s old-fashioned. Two, “papa” is a more European thing, which means it meets hipster criteria for exoticism. Third, its historically more common usage among the elite class evokes an air of quaint formality — the stuff of Jane Austen novels! Bringing papa back falls in line with another common tradition favored by hipster parents: the 100-year rule for picking a child’s name — anything a century or older wins (see Clive, Rema).

Basically, the old-school fanciness and not-of-this-place-ness of “papa” makes it sound fresh and sophisticated to modern ears — a perfect storm for hipster incorporation. So even if papa elicits the required eyeroll toward the needless esoterics hipsters are so fond of, it shouldn’t stop anyone from glomming on if so inclined.

Just act fast. It’s only a matter of time before it peaks again, which defeats the whole purpose.