The Meanings and Variations of “Father”

By Mark Nichol

Father derives from the Old English term faeder, which is cognate with the Latin and Greek word pater. (From the Latin term such words as paternal and paternity are derived.) The term refers not only to a male parent but also to an older man who serves as a mentor; it was also long employed as a respectful term of address for an elderly man, though this use is almost obsolete.

A stepfather is a man who marries one’s mother, and a father-in-law is the father of one’s spouse. Fatherly describes paternal behavior, and fatherlike alludes to a resemblance to the qualities of a father. Fatherhood and the less common fathership describe the quality or state of being a father. A father figure is an older man one looks up to as to a father, whereas “father image” pertains to an idealization of someone in that role.

Figuratively, the term father may pertain to one who originated or was significantly responsible for the development of something (such as a founder of a movement or as in the epithet “Father of our Country” for George Washington) or to a leading man of a community, or, impersonally, to a source or prototype. In religious contexts, it is a title for a priest or, capitalized, for God. (A father confessor is a clergyman who hears confessions or, by extension, any man a person trusts with secrets.)

The verb father pertains to the act of contributing to biological or figurative birth. Fatherland describes one’s home country, although the term is tainted by its association with Nazi-era Germany. Father Time is the personification of time as an elderly man.

Idioms referring to the word include the proverbs “The child is father to the man,” which expresses that a person’s personality forms in childhood, “Like father, like son,” alluding to a resemblance in behavior or qualities between a man and his son, and “The wish is father to the thought,” with a figurative meaning that beliefs often become perceived as facts because someone desires them to be so.

Expressions that use the term include the stock phrase “Not your father’s,” followed by the name of a product or other object, to communicate that something is not to be associated with an outdated counterpart, and “when (one) was a twinkle in (his or her) father’s eye,” referring to a period when a man had a notion of being a father but the child had not yet been conceived or born.

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9 Responses to “The Meanings and Variations of “Father””

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Father derives from the Old English term ‘faeder’, which is a cognate with the Latin and Greek word pater. (From the Latin term such words as paternal and paternity are derived.)”
    By “Old English”, you really mean that it can be traced even farther back to Anglo-Saxon-Jute, and so it is a Germanic word. Even farther back into the Indo-European roots, “father”, “der Vater” (German), and “Vader” (Dutch), have a common root with “padre” in Spanish and its sister languages, and “pater” & “patrician” in Latin.

    Even more intriguing is that if we look at Dutch closely, “the father” looks very much like “Darth Vader”. So George Lucas knew something about Dutch when he named Darth Vader in the script of his film STAR WARS that was published in 1977. ALSO, he was dropping a deeply-hidden hint that Darth Vader really was the father of Luke Skywalker. This was not revealed until well-into the film THE RETURN OF THE JEDI, which I saw on Opening Day, May 21, 1980 (my only sister’s birthday). I was just like Luke Skywalker: When Vader said “Luke, I am your father,” I yelled “NOOOOO!”
    When they were filming THE RETURN OF THE JEDI, George Lucas did not even tell James Earl Jones (the voice of Vader) about this paternity until about 1/2 hour before he was going to record his lines for that scene. Even James Earl Jones said, “Naah, he’s lying!”, and this is a direct quote from Mr. Jones, straight from a TV documentary that he was in personally.
    Luke Skywalker yelled, “NOOOO! That’s Impossible!”
    All along for all of the Dutch speakers of the world, the message that “Darth Vader” = “the father” was hidden. I do wonder if any of them figured it out? If so, it wasn’t published in “Newsweek”, “Time”, “Variety”, “The New York Times”, “The Times of London”, “The Los Angeles Times”, “Stern”, or in a big newspaper in The Netherlands. I surely would have heard of this.

  • Dale A. Wood

    From 1988 to 1992, I knew an immigrant who had lived in the U.S.A. for many years and who had gone to college here and worked here. He was of Indonesian blood, and he grew up in Indonesia, but his parents spoke Dutch at home. He also needed to use the national language of Indonesia in daily life and in school in Indonesia, and of course, he needed English in the U.S.A. and in college here.
    One day he told several of us at the college, “I speak broken Dutch, broken Indonesian, and broken English.”
    LOL – what a case of threefold symmetry!
    In my case, I was used to it because I taught so many foreign students and English students that I was used to broken English.
    There was an outstanding feature of my Chinese students and colleagues from Taiwan, the Mainland, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.
    Understanding English – excellent; reading English – excellent; writing English – excellent; speaking English – with great difficulty.
    There was an exception. One of my classmates in grad school was a Chinese man who had worked in an office of foreign trade in Shanghai. For years he had dealt with Australians, Britons, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and Americans, and he speaks English really, really well.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some comedians have point this out about the English language.
    Suppose that a woman is said to have “mothered” every child in the whole neighborhood. That’s a good thing!
    Suppose that a man is said to have “fathered” every child in the whole neighborhood. That’s either BAD or very, very questionable.
    On the other hand, you can be a “Daddy” to every child in the neighborhood, and that is a good thing.

  • venqax

    It’s encouraging that despite lengthy dealings with Australians, Britons, Canadians, New Zealanders, and South Africans he was still able to speak English very well.

  • Dale A. Wood

    LOL, he wasn’t ruint by all of those foreigners!
    Well, give the Canadians a lot of credit for speaking English well and even using words like northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest. Also, their cars have hoods, transmissions, tires, trunks, and no bonnets, gearboxes, tyres, or boots, and the steering wheel is on the left where it belongs.
    Canadians don’t talk like “Cheerio, matey, chum, have a bloody good day!”

  • Agua Caliente

    I just wish there were a word for fatherlike or fatherly that one could roll out as nicely as “avuncular.” Auntly’s not bad, either, but paternal sounds too…I don’t know, exactly…legal?

  • Dale A. Wood

    I wrote: “In my case, I was used to it because I taught so many foreign students and English students that I was used to broken English.”, but I meant to write, “In my case, I was used to it because I taught so many foreign students and immigrant students that I was used to broken English.”
    Oh, those English students with their bloody broken English!
    In reality, I have never had a student from England or from many European countries at all. (I can count Greece and Russia.) Most students who come to the U.S.A. to study science & technology come from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceana (e.g. Samoa, Fiji, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Caribbean islands, the Cape Verde Islands).

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the case of Asian students in the U.S.A., I have taught ones from an amazing variety of countries and cultures. E.g.:
    Afghanistan, Burma, the Republic of China, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Jordan, the Republic of Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine (but he had resided in Kuwait for a long time), the People’s Republic of China, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, Vietnam, and Yemen.
    I did a lot of teaching before places like these became independent: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkistan, Uzbekistan,… , so I did not experience the wave of students from that part of South Asia.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some say that Kazakhstan is partially in Europe and partially in Asia, but that is merely because the Ural River runs through it. A river is a poor divider between two continents, and mountain ranges like the Urals and the Caucasus are not much better…

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