Mom or Mum: What’s the Difference?

The term “mother” is one of the oldest words in the English language, and its roots date back hundreds of years. It’s no surprise, then, that the English language has so many variations of the word “mother.”

Differences in the usage of “mom” or “mum” typically depend on your country of origin and which variation of the English language you speak, so both “mom” and “mum” are correct. “Mom” tends to be the American English variant, while “mum” is the British English variant. However, this is by no means a set rule as usage can differ by region.

To understand the difference between “mom” vs. “mum,” this article will explore the origins of the two terms. Also, we will examine the core differences between British and American English to understand further why terms such as “mom” and “mum” exist today.

What Do We Understand By the Terms “Mom” and “Mum”?

An English speaker will use “mom” and “mum” for their female parent or the extended family matriarch (source). 

The formal version of “mom” and “mum” is “mother,” while the more colloquial terms or “pet names” are “mommy” or “mummy.”

It’s important to bear in mind that the above applies largely to the spoken word only. When writing, people most often revert to the formal term, “mother.”

Examples:

My mom is picking me up from school.
Mum, can I have ice-cream after dinner?

When to Capitalize “Mom” and “Mum”

When we write either “mom” or “mum,” it’s essential to understand when we should capitalize them and when we shouldn’t. We only capitalize the terms when we use them as a proper noun in place of a name.

Examples:

Mom, where did you put my bag?”
Mum? Are you home?
I had better go home. My mom is expecting me.
The students brought their mums and dads to school for career day.

As you can see from the third and fourth examples, we did not capitalize the term “mom” or “mum” when a pronoun preceded it or when we used it as a common noun.

Regional Use of “Mom” or “Mum”

“Mom” is the American English (AmE) spelling of the word, so you are most likely to encounter it in the United States. However, you may also encounter it in countries heavily influenced by the US, such as the Caribbean and some South American countries.

The first instance of “mom” dates back to the late 19th century, around 1867, and lexicographers note it as a shortening of “mommy” or “mamma.”

While using the term “mummy” in America may cause people to look around for a dead Egyptian, “mummy” or “mum” is the most common expression used in England as well as Australia and New Zealand. 

Mum Is the Older Expression

The term “mum” is older than its American variant, and its reference to the female parent dates back to around 1823. “Mum” is short for “mummy” and is an affectionate form of “mother” (source).

In the 1950s, sociologists also used “mum” to refer to working-class mothers.

Today, while most people in England prefer “mum,” they will, on occasion, use the term “mom.” Personal preference or the influence of American pop culture through TV and books largely determines this.

When dealing with the term “mum,” it is also important to remember that this term can vary depending on the region. For example, some areas of England, such as Birmingham and the West Midlands, typically favor the expression “mom.” 

In Northern England, Wales, and Ireland, they use the terms “mam” or “mammy.” Many immigrants to North America came from the Celtic fringe of the British Isles, especially in what would become the Southern States.

There, “mam” and “mamma” developed into “mom” and “momma.” For more on this, read our article, “Momma or Mama: Which Spelling is Correct?

The English will pronounce mum as /mʌm/, meaning they use the short “u” sound as in “bus,” “but,” and “hum.”

Those in the greater parts of America will pronounce “mom” as /mɑːm/, meaning they use the long “a” sound such as in “father.

How American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) Differ

We can roughly divide the differences between American English and British English into four categories: spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on spelling and pronunciation.

Spelling

In addition to the terms “mom” vs. “mum,” there are countless other examples where American English spelling and British English spelling differ. 

This variance between the two English dialects results from British English words retaining their roots in other languages, such as German and French. On the other hand, American English spelling attempts to simplify words based on how we pronounce them (source). 

In 1806, Noah Webster wrote the first “American” dictionary, which marked a significant shift in the differences between American English and British English and truly defined them as separate and distinct.

Before Webster’s dictionary, people relied on Samuel Johnson’s, A Dictionary of the English Language.

Then, in 1828, Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language, which exceeded Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. It has over 70,000 entries compared to Johnson’s 40,000.

Some Examples

American English likes to leave out the “u” in some words, while British English retains the “u.”

British EnglishAmerican English
colourcolor
neighbourneighbor

British English doubles the consonants of words that end in a vowel and -l, while American English doesn’t.

British EnglishAmerican English
travellertraveler
modellingmodeling

British English accepts -ise, -isation, -ize, and -ization.  American English only allows the -z versions.

British EnglishAmerican English
realiserealize
organiseorganize

Often British English words ending in -ence change to -ense in American English.

British EnglishAmerican English
offenceoffense
pretencepretense

Words in British English that have the double vowels “ae” or “oe”  only receive an “e” in American English.

leukaemia leukemia
anaemiaanemia

Some nouns that end in -ogue in British English have an alternative end-ng -og in American English.

dialoguedialog or dialogue
cataloguecatalog or catalogue
Image by Magda Ehlers via Pexels

Above are the general spelling differences between American English and British English. As you can see, the American version tends to be the simplified version based on how we pronounce the words.

If you would like to read more about how British and American words can differ in terms of spelling, read this article that explores cosy vs. cozy.

Pronunciation 

One of the fundamental ways in which British and American English differ is in their pronunciation. While we pronounce many words the same, we pronounce some words so differently that they can be very confusing to unfamiliar listeners.

Interestingly, schools often expect English teachers in places such as South Korea and Vietnam to use the American pronunciation of words.

Even with the breakdown of regional dialects thanks to mass media, British and American accents remain very distinct, and there are still numerous regional British and American accents.

Specific Examples

Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental ways pronunciation differs between British and American English.

Missing Sounds: One of the most apparent distinctions would be absent sounds between words, as in “car” and “bear.”

British EnglishAmerican English
ka:ka:r
beah:bear

In these examples, the “r” sound is missing from the British pronunciation but is present in the American Pronunciation. This is common practice unless the “r” sound is an initial syllable.

Stressed Syllables: In addition to leaving certain sounds out, where they place stress can often determine the differences in pronunciation.

British and American English tend to emphasize different parts of the words. Consider the examples of “adult” and “weekend.”

British EnglishAmerican English
A-dult a-DULT
week-END WEEK-end

Omission or Alternation of Vowel Sounds: Lastly, leaving out or altering vowel sounds is common practice in American English. They do this to simplify the pronunciation of the word, as in the examples “water,” “bottle,” and “mountain.”

British EnglishAmerican English
waw-tah wa-der
bot-tle bo-dle
Moun-tin   moun-nn

These are just some examples, and there are many more. It’s no wonder tourists get confused.

The Evolution of “Mom” and “Mum”

No matter which version of the word you use, be it “mom,” “mum,” or “mam,” at the end of the day, they all originated from the term “mother.”

“Mother” is one of the oldest words in the world, which seems fitting considering that mothers have been around since the very beginning. The age of the term also makes its etymology fascinating.

We derive the term “mother” from the Middle English word moder. We can further trace the word from its Germanic roots.

Germanic

Old English (Mōdor) — Dutch (Moeder) — German (Mutter)

   

Mother

However, we can trace its influence even further across various older languages. The list below illustrates languages within the same family, some of which directly influenced the formation of the word “mother.” Note how similar they are in sound and spelling. 

Proto-Germanic: mōdēr 
Old Saxon: modar
Old Frisian: moder
Old Norse: moðir
Old Irish: mathir
Latin: mater
Sanskrit: matar
Greek: mētēr

English is a Germanic language influenced by Latin-based Romance languages like French.

All of the above are languages from the Indo-European family, from which Proto-Germanic emerged, followed by such branches as Old Saxon, Old Norse, and Old Frisian.

Indo-European refers to those related languages spread across Southern and Western Eurasia (Europe and Asia).

The transition in spelling from moder to “mother” occurred by the mid-16th century, about the same time as the English word “mamma” emerged.

This term came about from the “ma” vocalization babies make, which is almost universal across all of the Indo-European languages.

Greek – mamme
Latin – mamma
Rusian – mama
Persian – mama
French – maman
Welsh – mam

Timeline Illustrating the Evolution of Mother to Mum to Mom

____________________________________________________________________________
1200 1570 1707     1810 1823 1839 1844 1867
Moder Mamma  Mama   Momma            Mum    Mummy Mommy Mom

Of course, English is a fluid language that is constantly changing and evolving, so it’s no surprise that some of the terms have become outdated, and we no longer use them as frequently.

In fact, terms such as “mommy” and mummy” have an expiry date. Except for individuals like Prince Charles, who still calls his mother, the Queen, “mummy,” most people grow out of using “mommy” and “mummy” in childhood and switch to “mom” or “mum.”

Alternative Meanings for Mum

The term “mum” has a couple of other meanings in the English language, and one of these actually predates its usage with regard to mothers.

Mum’s the Word

Between 1350 and 1400, the Middle English word “momme,” which roughly translates as “do not reveal” or “be silent,” shortened to “mum.” This variation predates its usage to refer to one’s mother, and many adopted it across England. 

We can trace this usage of “mum” back to none other than William Shakespeare. He first used the term in the second part of Henry VI.

“Seal up your lips and give no words but mum.”

This is where we derive the idiom “Mum’s the word,” meaning to keep quiet. This idiomatic phrase — a non-literal or figurative expression — emerged around 1704. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com

Common English idioms include the following.

  1. Under the Weather,  which means a person is feeling sick. 
  2. Spill the beans,  which means to tell a secret. 
  3. Sat on the fence, which means to be undecided. 

The “Mum” in Chrysanthemum

We often refer to chrysanthemums simply as “mums.” Gardeners coined the term around 1915 to abbreviate chrysanthemum, which can be a bit of a mouthful to say.

Final Thoughts

“Mom” vs. “Mum” are two examples of how American and British English differ and also illustrate how the English language has the ability to evolve and reshape itself.

Understanding the cultural context of “mom” and “mum” may help you gauge how best to interact with those around you and get your message across. Ultimately, the concepts themselves are timeless, spanning all languages.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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