Search Ace Linguist

November 1, 2017

The Deal with Daddy

In 2012, when I was getting into Lana Del Rey's music, I found out that she had a reputation as singing about old men and calling her boyfriends "daddy." It struck me as a very weird thing to do, with all sorts of reverse-Oedipal undertones. What does it mean? Who's doing this? Are there men out there calling their girlfriends "mommy"? I spent some time researching this phenomenon, and it turns out we've been doing this for quite a while!

A stern 1950s dad with horn-rimmed glasses sits next to his son.
"Tell me a story, daddy." "Well, son..."

What is 'daddy'?

dictionary entry of list of slang meanings of 'daddy' from the Cassless Dictionary of Slang
All sorts of things, apparently.

The oldest use of "X's daddy" to refer to someone other than X's father or father figure dates back to 1681 (per the Random House Dictionary of American Slang). It was used by prostitutes "in reference to their pimps or to an older male customer." The connection was that pimps - a mostly male group - took care of the prostitutes financially, much like how a father provides for his child's financial needs.

In the early 1900s, we also see blues songs with the term 'daddy' to refer to a pimp. The meaning starts to expand, however, to refer to a man who "takes care" of a young woman's financial needs, likely in exchange for sexual favors. It's no longer a prostitute-pimp relationship, though - instead it's the "sugar daddy-sugar baby" relationship (note that the infantilization implied by 'daddy' is made explicit in the recipient term 'sugar baby'). We also start seeing it expand even more. It's genericized to refer to a male lover. It's used as gay slang for "the dominant/masculine role in a homosexual relationship." Angela Davis says it's even used for female lovers (Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 1999). In African-American working class argot, "daddy" went from a father to a pimp to a man who takes care of a woman's financial needs to a male lover and then even any lover. The theme becomes less obvious with each step, but the thread is still "someone who takes care of someone else." The slang use of "daddy" in modern Anglo-American culture likely stems from this early African American working class argot (as opposed to being a direct descendant of the 17th century use of daddy).

Image from 1920s French magazine 'La Vie Parisienne.' Shows a young woman getting married to an elderly but wealthy man.
Top text: The young lady needs to get married. Bottom text: "Think of it this way - a marriage where I have everything to win... and nothing to lose!"

"Daddy" can be interpreted as the "provider," but daddy can also be an authority figure. This is exemplified in the phrase "who's your daddy." The Washington Post did some research into the origin of this taunt. In 1969, the Zombies made a song innocently asking "what's your name, who's your daddy" referring to wanting to know a girl's pedigree.  DJ Doug Tracht heard the phrase in the Zombies song and then used it in a zestier reading on his radio shows. He used this phrase so often that it began to be used outside his show. "Who's your daddy" became popularized as a way to assert someone's dominance over someone else. e.g. winning a poker game and smugly asking, "who's your daddy?" Or you can have an entire stadium yell it at you as a taunt.

That's too much smug.

'Daddy' has expanded from being a financial provider to being an attractive male, especially one that looks older. This slang use is most popular among straight girls and gay boys in the early teens to early twenties range. Of the commonly used slang meanings of daddy, this is probably the one furthest removed from the whole 'taking care of someone else' thing. In fact, it seems to have more to do with authority and dominance than providing, as it's not uncommon for someone to leave a comment on an attractive male's Instagram requesting that 'daddy' do something to them.

Screenshot of a topic from GagaDaily. Title is 'Justin Bieber seen with HOT daddy.' There is a photo of an older man with his hand around Justin's waist.
Spoiler alert - that's his pastor and he has a wife and kids. (Source)

Building off the authority/dominance sense, there is 'daddy' referring to the male partner in a Daddy Dom/little girl roleplay scenario. This one seems to have sprung up independent of the pimp meaning, but it's the slang meaning that's closest to the original meaning of daddy: it involves actually pretending to be someone's father. Going further into what a Daddy Dom/little girl (DD/lg for you Tumblr users) roleplay is is a bit beyond the scope of this blog (and also not safe for work), but I'm sure you can work out what it entails.

For something completely different, take a look at "daddy-o." This is a term of address for a male in hipster/beatnik vernacular (dating back to the 1950s/60s). The aspect of "daddy" that got developed on wasn't the "taking care of" part but the "adult male" part. Perhaps this term also grew out of the African-American use of "daddy." Ultimately daddy-o became dated slang as the old hipster subculture ceased to exist. It's still invoked occasionally - Britney Spears uses it in her song Womanizer (2007): "Daddy-o, you've got the swagger of a champion."

Movie poster for 'Daddy-O'. Text: Meet the 'beat'! Daring to live... Daring to love! DADDY-'O'
This critically panned B-movie from 1958 demonstrates. At least it was John Williams's first score.

Who Actually Says 'Daddy,' Though?

As established earlier, the pimp meaning of 'daddy' is one of the earliest ones. We see it in blues songs, where provocative and suggestive lyrics were more accepted. Bessie Smith's "How Can I Be Your Sweet Mama When You're Daddy To Someone Else?" (1929) provides a lament on this subject, while Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)" from 1922 uses it to refer to her lover: "My man rocks me, with one steady roll [...] I said now, Daddy, ain’t we got fun." Remember what Angela Davis established – daddy was the province of African-American working class argot. Most examples I can find of “daddy” in early blues songs were by black writers and singers.

In 1938, we see "daddy" appear outside the world of black American music. In fact, it appears in a medium that's historically excluded black performers - the Broadway musical. We see the pimp meaning appear in the Cole Porter song "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" about a "sweet millionaire" who lavishly provides for his girl. Songwriters and screenwriters began to mine “daddy” for all its salacious implications. Ten years later, Marilyn Monroe sings "every baby needs a da-da-daddy" (yes, complete with childish stuttering!) in the 1948 film "Ladies of the Chorus," referring to every woman's supposed need for a man to protect her. Monroe’s character in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) also repeatedly calls her fiance "daddy," probably one of the most famous media referenced here (and likely where classic film enthusiasts picked up on this slang usage). The deracialization of “daddy” occurred fairly quickly!

Marilyn's character, Lorelei, says 'Daddy, I'll bet you made me the happiest girl in the world' to her fiance and moves in for a kiss
In case you were wondering, her fiance is also fabulously wealthy.

It would do us well to remember “daddy” doesn’t have to be a pimp or a lover. In the aftermath of songs like "Hit Me Baby One More Time," a boogie-woogie song called "Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar" sounds too provocative for 1940. Those of you with dirty minds will be disappointed, because the "daddy" in question is actually a drummer nicknamed "Daddy Slack." Translation: Gimme eight bears to the bar, daddy slack!".A proto-example of ‘daddy(-o)’ to refer to a man? Nevertheless, the daddy = dominance meaning didn't go unignored: "and when he plays with the bass and guitar, he's the daddy of them all." Perhaps the drummer was nicknamed "daddy slack" due to his mastery of his instrument instead? We may never know that, but we do know this song has a daddy quotient of two separate daddies.

"Daddy" even makes a surprise appearance in American country music. Country music has a complicated genesis – it shared roots with the blues and was originally performed by black musicians, but by the 40s it had become the music of rural, working class whites. That won't stop daddy, though. Hank Williams uses it in his classic cover of the Tin Pan Alley song "Lovesick Blues" (written 1922, released 1949): "Lord, I loved to hear her when she called me sweet daddy." He provides the only example on this list of a man referring to himself as a lover's "daddy" in "Moanin' the Blues" (1950): "your daddy is lonesome." Every other example of daddy here comes from the mouth of a female singer, but Hank Williams shows you can consider yourself a lover’s “daddy” too.

Close-up of 7'' 45 RPM Vinyl Single label. Text: Hank William sings ''I'm a Long Gone Daddy''
This song reached #6 on the US Billboard Country Charts!

Fast forward twenty years and we see daddy pop up in the nascent disco genre. Boney M released a song in 1976 called 'Daddy Cool', and it was their first major hit in Europe (the song never took off in the United States). While you could conceivably believe that "Daddy Cool" is about an actual father, the bridge "she's crazy about her daddy" and the refrain "she's crazy like a fool, wild 'bout daddy cool" -suggest it's a lover/pimp. If you’re intrigued by the semantic possibilities of daddy cool, there's an article in the New Inquirer approaching the song from a semiotic perspective. It's wild.

excerpt from The New Inquiry - Hence we must regard 'Daddy Cool' as another seminal contribution to the debate between culturalists and psychoanalysts over the universality of Oedipal structures in ordering human practices. We may paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari and state that ''it is within capitalist society that the critique of 'Daddy Cool' must always resume its point of departure and find again its point of arrival.'' Daddy Cool is superimposed on larger and even more amorphous familial figure, that of capital itself...
This was a really... interesting topic to research.

Now we arrive to the inspiration for this topic - Lana Del Rey. She hinted at the idea of a lover being a father-type in her major label debut "Born To Die" - the song "Off To The Races" has her refer to her lover as "my old man." She didn’t explicitly say “daddy,” though until later that year when she released the lead single for her new EP, "Paradise." The song, "Ride," includes the lyric "you can be my full time daddy." The accompanying music video shows her with an older male lover, positioned on his lap like a child, and also shows a different older male lover brushing her hair (explicit infantilization!). If that's not enough daddy for you, she also re-recorded an old song of hers, "Yayo," which has her purring "let me put on a show for you, daddy." This sparked an association between Lana and "daddy," resulting in a common misconception that she sings about "daddies" on every song (and many memes). She cut down on daddy usage significantly afterwards, with "daddy" appearing only once on a bonus track from her 2014 album Ultraviolence and not at all in Honeymoon (2015) or Lust For Life (2017). There’s speculation that Lana, a fan of classic Hollywood films, may have picked up on the usage from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Alas, no sooner did daddy get a chance to breathe out in the open than he was summarily sacrificed. Nevertheless, his ghost lingers as she is uniquely associated with the slang usage of "daddy."

Lana making a disapproving face and 'nah' gesture with her hands. Text: no? i don't think so? you are too young to be my sugar daddy Image: Lana peaking out from behind a wall. Text: ''did someone say /daddy/?''
The only reason I wrote this article was to post these lana memes

You don't have to be a niche crooner to talk about daddy! Nobody less than queen figure Beyonce uses daddy in the song "Rocket" from her self-titled 2013 album: "oh, daddy, ooh now, yes child [...] you ain't right for doing it to me like that, daddy, even though I've been a bad girl." You can't control Beyonce - her lover is daddy, but he's also child, and she's a bad girl. She's no stranger to daddy though, having sung a song called "Sexy Daddy" on Destiny's Child album "Survivor" (2001). Perhaps daddy is finally entering the mainstream.

Why 'Daddy?'

“Father” is the neutral, standard way to refer to the male parent of a child. It’s appropriate for use in scientific literature and general discussion of fathers, as well as a form of address for one's father. “Dad” is an informal way to refer to a father. It’s not appropriate to use the word "dad" in a formal written paper, but it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Mishall’s dad likes road trips across America” and to talk about things like “dad rock” or “dad jokes.” "Daddy" is the diminutive form of "dad." The term is at least 500 years old, and likely older. Unlike father and dad, this one is distinctly associated with children. A seven year old can say “daddy, let’s go to the park,” but a forty year old saying “daddy, let’s go to the park” sounds a little weird (though it is acceptable in certain regions). Notice the importance of using the proper term for a father in the correct context. Using the incorrect one, especially in reference to one’s own father, suggests an abnormal father-child relationship to the listener.

Oedipus meeting a man at the crossroads and preparing to kill him. Unbeknownst to him, that man is his father.
Normal: Oedipus killed his father. Colloquial: Oedipus killed his dad. Bizarre: Oedipus killed his daddy.

Now normally, calling someone "my daddy" refers to a human being who is, in fact, your father. X's daddy should always refer to 'the father of X.' Most usages of "daddy" are straightforward like this, but we're not interested in those today. We want to know why daddy is such an gold mine for slang usages. Why don’t father and dad get the same treatment?

A picture of Michael Jackson in the 80s with his mother standing to his left and his father standing to his right. He has his arm around his mother and is standing closer to her.
I wonder who he was closer to.

The consequences of misusing daddy are clear - if you are past a certain age and you call your father "daddy," you sound a little like a baby. The diminutive of “dad” is considered acceptable for kids, but after a certain point your relationship with your parents is expected to mature and that often involves a changing of terms to refer to each other. A five year old may call her father “daddy” in private and in public, but a thirteen year old will never call her father “daddy” in public because she’s aware the term is childish and she wants to assert that she is no longer a child by changing how she refers to her father. She may call him “daddy” in private if trying to elicit a favor – temporarily positioning herself as an innocent child to be spoiled in order to get her father to respond favorably to whatever request she may have. In my experience, it seems more common for women to continue to privately address their fathers as “daddy” than it is for men.

William: Dad, you have to go back to the doctor. [...]
Betty: So... daddy, what would you like to do today?

You don’t have to be talking about your own “daddy” if you want to invoke infantile images. Think about the term "daddy's girl," which suggests a girl or woman who is/was spoiled by her father with lavish gifts (note that there’s no similar term “daddy’s boy;” there is “momma’s boy” which suggests an overprotected boy). Think about how often someone belittles and infantilizes someone by claiming their achievements were due to their parents’ influence as opposed to their own talents: “That trust fund baby John thinks he’s such hot stuff because he got into Harvard, but I bet you his daddy had to leverage his connections to get him in.” Look at the tweet below. For context, The Fyre Festival was a festival that was under-prepared on the actual day of the event. Young people bought expensive tickets to a private island expecting a catered lunch and got bread with cheese. The over-dramatic response to these conditions by privileged young people led to mockery on social media, including one user who clearly thought their reaction was childish:

Tweet from @Ganodiciendo. Upper text: 'Rich kids be like: if the poor weren't lazy and started working they'd be rich.' Lower text: 'At the #fyrefestival: DADDY SEND HELP, MY SANDWICH IS WEIRD!'
"Do you know who my father is?!"

The term 'daddy' has also become associated with men who are attractive in a traditionally masculine sort of way, especially if they are "older" (read: more than 30 years old). The association with fathers is not quite clear in this case. It could be "this man is so attractive, I want him to take a dominant role in a relationship with me." Curiously enough, attractive baby-faced men are less likely to be referred to as 'daddy' in my experience. Looking 'dominant' seems to be part and parcel of being a 'daddy.'

Tweet from @BieberBonerz: 'he went from ''hello sir, it's nice to finally meet you'' to ''your daughter calls me daddy too''.' On the lower left is a picture of a young, fresh-faced Justin Bieber smiling. On the lower right is a picture of Bieber as a young man with tattooed arms, crouching down and striking a pose.
A tale of two daddies.

The pattern is clear: if there is a "daddy," then there must also be a "baby" or a child, who needs to be taken care of and even told what to do. The "taking care of/provided for/subservient to" theme is the underlying thread in all other "daddy" meanings (with one exception in 'daddy-o'). This meaning is obvious and the tension underlying an unexpected use of “daddy” is easily exploitable. “Dad” and "father" in comparison are so commonplace that it’s very hard to misuse them at all. In other words, lots of people were looking for a way to refer to someone taking care of someone else and “daddy” was just the way to do it.

'Mama' and 'Papi'

If you're wondering if there's an equivalent to daddy in other languages, the answer is yes. Spanish speakers will be familiar with the term 'papi' used to refer to either a male lover or just any male in general. 'papi chulo' is the equivalent of 'daddy' to mean pimp, though it now refers to any cool guy.

A clip from Jennifer Lopez's music video for 'I Luh Ya Papi.' Text: I luh ya papi, I luh ya luh ya luh ya papi.
This song reached #5 on the US Billboard Dance Club Songs!

If you're wondering if there's a female equivalent to daddy, there's 'mama'. Lana demonstrates in "Yayo" again: "You call me your mama." This one also has deep roots in the blues - all sorts of blues songs have the female lead refer to herself as 'mama'. Bessie Smith alone has "How Can I Be Your Sweet Mama When You're Daddy To Someone Else" and "I Used To Be Your Sweet Mama." If you need an example that's a little more mainstream and current, Bruno Mars's #1 US hit "That's What I Like" (2017) says "you can be my fleeka, mamacita." (There is also a Spanish equivalent to ‘momma,’ “mami.” It’s used in much the same way “papi” is.)

While the authoritative and dominant connotations come more easily to "daddy" than "mama," don't think that means you can boss mama around. The song "When You're Good To Mama" from the 1975 musical "Chicago" unequivocally establishes that "the keeper of the keys, the countess of the clink, the mistress of murderess row" is "Matron Mama Morton," who has not one but two maternal names. Christina Aguilera's forgotten single "Woohoo" (2010) also suggests mama's in control: "Cravin', now get your hands on/Give it up before mama says no."

Image: Mama Morton licks her finger in front of an audience member. Text: When you're good to mama... (the following line would be: mama's good to you)
...Mama's good to you.

Anyone who's been around the pop music community will have heard of fans referring to celebrities as "mom." Lady Gaga used to refer to herself as "Mother Monster" to purposefully position herself as a surrogate mother figure to her teenage fans. Lorde once retweeted Kim Kardashian's magazine cover and wrote 'mom,' which led some to believe she was shaming Kim for looking attractive while having children. Lorde explains: "i retweeted kim’s amazing cover and wrote ‘MOM’, which among the youthz is a compliment; it basically jokingly means ‘adopt me/be my second mom/i think of you as a mother figure you are so epic" (emphasis added). Here the idea is similar to the one behind daddy where you have "mom" as someone who takes care of someone else. However, "mom" has a nurturing tone lacking from daddy, and there are no romantic or sexual undertones.

Admiration in one word.

Otherwise, "mother" and “mom” suffers from the same blandness "father" and “dad” do and are not ripe for slangification. The variant "mommy," curiously enough, is not common, even though it has the same childish connotations that “daddy” does. Perhaps that one is simply too infantile to transfer to a romantic context, or perhaps straight men don’t find the idea of infantilizing themselves in comparison to their female partners attractive. If daddy is making steps into the mainstream, mommy is still firmly in "very creepy" territory.

The Daddy of 'em All

If you've ever felt weirded out by all the slang uses of 'daddy', just remember that we've been using 'daddy' to mean all sorts of things for centuries! We first see non-father 'daddy' in the late 17th century, then see it independently developed again in the 20th century by African Americans. From there it's slowly spread throughout media, never quite losing its weird incestuous tone but slowly becoming more accepted. Perhaps the taboo behind ‘daddy’ is precisely what keeps this word a gold mine of material.

Tweet from @PatrickCharlto5: My kids are gonna call me dude because yall have tainted all the father figure words
Can't blame this guy.

BONUS ROUND: Somebody realizes the comedic potential of the creature named 'daddy long legs.'


  1. My impression is that this song is about a pimp and his hold over his girls. I do not know if that is the meaning its authors wanted to convey, but if so it would explain its failure to take off in the U.S., where prostitution is inexplicably frowned upon, while the song was popular in Europe where a much more rational attitude toward commercial sex exists.

  2. Then of course there's the famous scene from Scum with Ray Winstone:

  3. I've heard recently mommy being used in a similar vein to daddy, in that it has some romantic connotations, though i think it is as explicitly sexual as the term 'daddy'. this is mainly on tiktok, where you'll see people reply to woman's video saying ' mommy', and i think it's getting more of an association with domination too, and seems to have a wider age range (as in i've 21-22 years olds be called this).

    I haven't seen anyone use the british variation 'mummy' but i think this reflects that daddy is also more rarely used in the UK.