Few words could be more dichotomous than “daddy”. Why is that?

Often we create words and they go into a category to define a subject. Subject object categorization. This word defines this category of things. Think about when you see little kids playing. First a round thing is a ball then every round thing becomes a ball. Is it is an apple or a ball?

Like the word tree. You could identify a tree.

green leafed tree surrounded by fog during daytime
Photo by Simon Wilkes

You probably think that tree looks more representative of what you think of when you say “tree” than this tree.  

Overwoekerde heggen in slechte staat - Royalty-free Heg Stockfoto
Hedge Maple photo by BG Walker

Yet you know they’re both trees. Even if you happen to have a deeper knowledge of botany and know that one is a maple and the other is an oak tree. This is called unit classification and it’s one of the foundations of modern schools of grammar and our understanding of the language of thought.  We create categories of objects and some objects are more representative of the category than others.

But, daddy?  What’s representative of daddy?  

That might depend on your subculture or how much you’ve been corrupted by the internet . Don’t worry. I won’t add any photos.

Chances are you have this weird conglomeration of words like father, sexual domination or wannabe sexual dominant and possibly even a leather daddy straight from the gay bars of the early 1990s. No shame. It’s a classic example of polysemy, the phenomenon of words evolving to mean different things over time and then sometimes morphing back in on themselves to mean the same thing again.   

But how does a word that’s used synonymously to mean father, sexual partner, and an older and masculine homosexual male of the species come to be used for say, a crane fly? Or a Pholcidae / cellar spider – that spider that’s so populous it’s found on every populated continent. Or the harvest man which most people know for the little pockets on the spindly legs and perhaps the weird orange smell they put off when scared if you happened to pick them up.  

That one is easy enough to explain. You see daddy didn’t always mean father.  

It probably started out that way though.  

Baby babble, common in early language acquisition, where babies start out playing with strong aspirate letters like p b k t g and vowels. Babies have been known to sit and happily go babababbabababba gggggagaaasgaa goo kakka for hours.  

It’s how they build the oral dexterity to eventually pick up language. That early play is training for other uses of language.  

But it also makes sense that over excited parents will often attribute that rambling to meaning. That’s why words like  

  • papa  
  • Baba  
  • Tata (Greek) 
  • Dada  
  • Tata (czech) 
  • tėtė (Lithuanian) 
  • Tatah (Sanskrit)  
  • Tad (welsh)  
  • Daid (Irish) 

All mean “father” 

Mothers get mama, which is less related to the root word mother and mehter than most of us would assume.  

These words occur spontaneously and independently in nearly every language. We like attributing baby babbling to meaning and linking it to parents makes sense. That’s a phenomenon known as false cognates, where we assume a word sounds like something else because it is, when that’s err uh false.  

So dada which becomes dad-ee as children start to leave baby babble stages, and a word is born.

In England we have references of the usage of the word daddy to refer to fathers dating back to the 1300s. But it’s not just in English. Consider Russian baba.  

By the 1600s, daddy was used to refer to the gentleman caller, the John, the man hiring a prostitute.  

And here, it’s important to note that other words like father, papa, sponsor, etc. have all served the same function. If a word has even slightly insinuated that a man is a provider at some point, it’s been used to refer to a man paying for sex. And vice versa. See “Cocotte”, best translated to something like sweetiekins which became so popularized as a name for the prostitute that the coquette is now inexorably linked with a female manipulating men with physical appearance and flirtation.  

So, dada moved from innocent babble to street language for a man who shows up and pays money for sex. What does that have to do with an innocent little araneomorph spider?  

Well, words change. And that normally happens when there’s a lot of people using a term. So, by the early 1700s in London, life was pretty harsh, for men in particular, but we’re focusing on women here. If you happened to be poor you were simultaneously being hit by the combination of being unemployable (your kids would do the same work but cheaper in new factories which benefited from tiny hands anyway) while living through one of the worst food fallouts in then modern history — capitalism. With more and more people being forced into the city to work by the disappearing commons and therefore access to land to farm, work and therefore wages were scarce. Prostitution was a way to feed yourself, the husband, and possibly acquire more of those kids to build a family with earn more money for bread.  Which by the way was a big deal because the poor were being swept by a vicious campaign to eat expensive processed white bread and also to uh, donate money they needed for food to the church. An estimated 1 in 5 women in London were engaged in that illustrious trade of prostitution.  

So everyone had a “daddy”. Women started casually referring to not just their customers as “daddy” but all men. Yes, all men.  

But Brandy? You ask? The spiders?  

Yes. So by the 1800s, more specifically the Victorian period, “daddy” had become fashionable. Perhaps because it links well with the also popular “dandy”. Daddy was a well-dressed desirable man. A catch. A stud. A beefcake if you will.  

And a tall man became, “daddy long legs”. This nomer was less “father long legs” and more like the appellation “long tall sally” “long tall woman in a black dress“  

Daddy Long-Legs By Jean Webster (Annotated Edition), Jean Webster |  9798502385381 | Boeken | bol.com

See the 1912 book “daddy long legs” by Jean Webster – in which an orphan receives a mysterious benefactor and spotting him through the window and seeing he is tall, calls him daddy long legs.  

So daddy long legs became a term which you could just slap on any old long-legged thing. Surely, looking at the average Pholcidae one could see why.  

I find the tracking of this Daddy Long Legs feelers enjoyable - GIF on Imgur

And of course it doesn’t stop there. There’s an entire list of creepy crawlies that bear the name. The common cranefly for example. Or the very famous not-spiders, Opiliones also known by the totally less creepy name, harvestmen.  

So why are multiple (several thousand species) of long-legged arachnid and insect family referred to as “daddy long legs”? Simple, at a point in the history of English it meant “what a fine upstanding long legged chap he is”. Nothing weird or terribly kinky about it.  

And daddy didn’t evolve to be a standard term for men to refer to each other just once. Rather multiple times. Think daddy-o, once ubiquitous in jazz clubs in the early 1920s, and used to mean “dude”. That split off into the daddy-cools and big-daddy’s of the 70s. And daddy falls in and out of use as many successive generations prefer different nomenclature than their parents. So father’s son wants to be daddy but daddy’s son wants to be dad and dad’s son wants to be papa.

“What’s your name, who’s your daddy — he rich? is he rich like me?” - the zombies  

But then you get words like “Crawdad”

In case you’ve never heard of it, it’s a term for the crayfish or crawfish, originating in and largely endemic to the central USA.  Which, I also recently learned, due to my proclivity to use this word and not any of the more internationally acceptable ones like crayfish, sort of brands me as a hick descending from this region.

English comes in many forms, but I want you to know that if you refer to the crayfish/crawdad as a prawn, we are no longer on speaking terms. Take the Cambridge language survey here

How does a crustacean, which is occasionally sold as a lobster as part of a scam to the unwitting, a dad? His legs aren’t particularly long? His claws don’t much reminisce back to a fine upstanding and tall gentleman? He doesn’t even appear to play jazz? Right? Correct.  

This is another false cognate. However, the dad in crawdad has the same root. Baby talk and babbling. It turns out humans just never really lose that love of babbling. We love our big round aspirate consonants followed by a vowel. Lady Gaga, after all, has four of them.  

But dad in words like doodad and crawdad actually means something like “that” or thingamajig.  

“That” “dat” “dad” (a lovely false cognate).  

And in the case of doodad, which is considered to have the same root, it’s just a result of either being incredibly southern about pronunciation. “Dad” is a truncated form of “dialed” “d’a’d” with stops or even drops instead of the pertinent i and le syllables. That easily shifts to “dad” especially with that classic southern drawn out a. Your watch stops being a dial and starts being a “dad” and someone who doesn’t follow their watch and ends up being late is a “dad” (flakey), which eventually migrates to mean “thingie” because in the 1900-1905 period when this particular bit of slang developed, most men carried a pocket watch or wore a wrist watch. The doodad was born.

Did crawdad evolve out of that? Probably not. It’s probably it’s own special brand of changing letters and dropping sounds. But it certainly has no etymological connection to the daddy in daddy long legs.  

So crawfish is a corruption of crayfish by people accustomed to speaking bastardized or actual French.  

Craw-dad is a further bastardization by people probably going ? “That there ain’t no fish y’ hear”. Which would be remarkably astute, all things considered. It is not a fish. However, this fellow is a fine upstanding gentleman, a craw-daddy if you will.  

black cray fish on rock

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