Why Do Parents Use These Babyish Words?

When you listen to parents talk to their kids, it may seem like they have their own language. Between baba and uppie (say what?), parents have a different way of communicating.

But there's a reason for that! When speaking to babies, parents speak slowly in a higher-pitched voice and tend to repeat phrases. Similarly, many nursery rhymes rely on repetition, rhythm, and inflection to help children learn. When children learn to speak and later to read, they acquire what linguists call phoneme (or phonemic) awareness. We aren’t born knowing the proper sounds to use in building words, rather we learn what the discreet, separate sounds (phonemes) are as we learn language.

Let's take a look at the simple and common words and phrases we use with children ... hey, parents, we're ready to learn your language.

wee-wee

The word wee-wee (meaning "urine" or "to urinate") was first recorded around 1925. One reason parents use this term instead of the real thing is because they aren't exactly comfortable using scientific bathroom talk with the kiddos. (No one likes talking about what goes in the potty.)

Speaking of potty, the term potty dates back to the 1850s, and it's since been used by parents to describe a toilet to a child. Maybe that's because it was originally the word for "a seat of reduced size fitting over a toilet seat, for use by a small child." Enough said.

But, why did they name that seat a potty? Not only is it easier for young kids to say, but it's thought that potty makes potty training less of a scary, intimidating experience. Seriously, who could be nervous about using the potty?

Fun fact: now dog parents can get in on the lingo, too—what do you call the pads you leave on the floor for your little puppy to pee on? Wee-wee pads.

oopsie daisy

When a child falls down, some parents call it an oopsie daisy. Then there's upsy-daisy, which is used both when a parent lifts a baby high overhead and when the baby tumbles topsy-turvy to the ground. In the latter scenario, upsy-daisy sounds more like “oopsie-daisy,” where oops registers that something went wrong—those little legs need to do a few more lunges in the gym!

An early precursor to this word is up-a-daisy, which first appeared in 1711 in a collection of letters by Jonathan Swift. This is even predated by an earlier term, upaday, which calls to mind getting “up” at day break. Upaday transformed over time to upsy-daisy. Because upsy is so close to oopsie, the other meaning of registering a mistake took form later, in 1925.  

Be careful when using this term, if Julia Roberts’ character in Notting Hill (1999) has anything to say about it: “No one has said ‘whoops a daisies’ for 50 years and even then it was only little girls with blonde ringlets.”

boo-boo

After a child makes an oopsie daisy they might get a boo-boo. Not to be confused with the word boo (a word used to scare someone), boo-boo translates to a minor cut or scrape in baby talk. This word is an Americanism that has been around since the 1950s and is used by parents who want to make an injury seem less dramatic so the child isn't afraid of getting hurt.

little-wittle

When something is small and cute—you know, like a baby—parents say it's little-wittle. It's unclear when adults officially started using this expression, but we know why. The term wittle rhymes with little, making it a flip-flop word (also known as reduplication) and fun for both the parent and the child to say. Okey-dokey, flim-flam, and pitter-patter are other examples of these reduplicatives, which are words that repeat sounds with a slight change. Rhyming is the answer to everything.

uppie

Before a parent picks up their child, have you ever heard them ask if the baby wants to go uppie? It stems from the old Middle English word up and means the same thing ... only it's now said in an engaging manner that's geared toward a child. Parents use this word (and a high-pitched tone) to help add excitement to everyday activities (and words) like being picked up.

There's also the children's game keepy-uppy, which originated in Scotland in the 1950s ... and it's pretty self-explanatory—keep the ball in the air as long as possible without letting it touch the ground. You know you've played that game before ... even if you didn't call it that, but now you can!

sippy

If a baby is thirsty, they may need a sippy from the bottle. Yes, the word sippy is just an adorable way for a parent to refer to taking a sip of juice or water. We can probably thank Richard Belanger for giving us the sippy cup in 1981 and helping jumpstart this popular word.

baba

In France, a baba is a rum and raisin cake, but here in America, baba refers to a bottle—and no, not the rum kind of bottle.

It's a common word for parents to use because their child most likely calls their baby bottle a baba at first anyway. It sticks with the parents because it's cute, and it helps keep word-object association clear from the start. The sound of the letter B is also a pretty easy one for babies to say, another reason this word is popular.

How children begin using the correct word (bottle) is a story for another day.

binky

The word binky came about in 1935, thanks to Binky Baby Products Company of New York. It refers to a child's pacifier, a rubber device resembling a mother's nipple. Parents have been using this word for many years because it's easier for a child to start saying once they begin to talk. And, it has that magical "ee" sound at the end—kid language 101.

blankie

A blankie is a sweet, childlike way to say "blanket." It dates back to 1921 and refers to an item that a child is very attached to and can't live without (translation: security blanket). That "ee" sound makes another appearance here giving it a cutesy, lovey sound to associate with that special item.

Looking for more baby-related reading? Check out the histories of these nursery rhymes!

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