The Origin of the Term 'Baby Mama'

The ubiquitous phrase may owe more to merrie olde England than to Jamaican slang.

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Even today, you might hear someone in Yorkshire say among friends "my sister husband" rather than "my sister's husband." In court transcriptions of statements by London prisoners in the 16th and 17th centuries, lower-class folk regularly say things like "Goldwell wife" instead of "Goldwell's wife" and "Barlowe owne brother" instead of "Barlowe's own brother." Many of these people were due for transportation to plantations in Virginia and beyond. "Baby mama" wasn't long in coming, especially since the absence of a possessive 's gave a break to people who, like most recently arrived slaves, were learning English as adults rather than natively.

"Baby mama," then, is a symptom of the birth of Ebonics as a mash-up of assorted British regional dialects. Created by Africans and going its own way for so long, Black English now has its own cadence. Yet the basics are largely what they always were, and when we say "baby mama," we are channeling less Bob Marley than Bob Cratchit.

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.

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John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The RootHe is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

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