"baby mama" does not mean what they thought it means

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Apr 30 22:07:51 UTC 2008

On Apr 30, 2008, at 1:57 PM, David Bergdahl wrote:

> In short, "baby mama" is exactly like "baby carriage."

well, this is complicated.

"baby mama" in standard english can indeed be a noun+noun compound
(like "baby carriage").  noun+noun compounds in english allow for a
great many understandings in context.  probably the easiest
interpretation to get for this one is 'mama who is a baby', but that's
not the interpretation in the movie title, where something like 'mama
for a baby' would work.  but in fact, this interpretation is normally
very hard to get for a noun+noun compound with a kin-term as head;
compare "baby father".

it's important that "baby mama" is a also well-known formulaic
expression of AAVE, where it's understood roughly along the lines of
standard english "baby's mama" (a possessor+noun phrase).  so the film
title plays on the AAVE use, which is appropriate in context, and in
fact i'd say that the title works only because of the AAVE use.
without that, you'd have to go with something unsexy like "a mother
for my/her baby" or take another tack entirely.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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