From MeeMaw to PawPaw, Grandparents Have Many Name Options

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Happy belated Grandparents’ Day to those of you who are grandmothers and grandfathers. I learned of this event by accident while shopping where I saw balloons adorned with Grandma, Grandpa, Papa and Nana. Apparently, Grandparents’ Day was Sunday. How did I not know this?

I’ve since learned that in 1978 – the year I was pregnant with my first child – President Jimmy Carter declared the first Grandparents’ Day, something that’s always celebrated on the first Sunday after Labor Day.

Who knew? Not I.

In fact, nobody I know celebrates Grandparents’ Day. It’s just never caught on. And no wonder, because it’s redundant. If you’re a grandparent, then you’re already a mother or a father, which means you’ve ostensibly celebrated already on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, so Grandparents’ Day is kind of superfluous.

Want to take a guess at Grandparents’ Day’s official flower? The forget-me-not, the perfect choice. It’s a flower, plus a guilt-inducing message, all in one.

Setting aside the mostly unrecognized Grandparents’ Day, there’s the issue of a grandparent’s name, which is far more important than getting a Mylar balloon from the unSafeway.  I immediately noticed when looking at the Grandparents’ Day balloons that there were only four grandparent name choices: Grandpa, Grandma, Papa and Nana. How limiting!
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It’s like my childhood days all over again, of coming up empty-handed while trying to find personalized pencils or personalized Schwinn licence plates. The closest I ever got to my name was “Donna” – which is a perfectly wonderful name, if that’s your name.

That’s OK. When it comes to my grandparent name, I like the individuality of mine – Noni – just fine. I planned it years before my children had children, after a friend gave me some serious advice: Choose your grandparent name early, before someone chooses it for you.

She said the days of all grandparents being called Grandpa and Grandma were over, that there were myriad grandparent names, and some are a better fit than others. She said it’s best to not leave it up to chance, or worse yet, to toddlers. That’s what happened to friend Dan, whose first grandchild couldn’t say Grandpa, but he could say CaCa, so that’s what stuck for not just that child, but all the subsequent grandchildren to infinity and beyond in Dan’s family. Dan, quiet, reserved and proper, is the least ca-ca like person I know, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the name he’s got.

But back to my friend, who shared how she’d grown up with two grandmothers, and, early on, to keep them straight, the grandchildren took a practical stance and called the hefty grandmother Big Grandma and the diminutive grandmother Little Grandma.

My friend quickly sized things up when she met her son’s fiancee’s family for the first time, including her son’s future mother-in-law, a tiny creature.

“There was no way, when they started having kids, that I was going to be called Big Grandma,” my friend recalled.

Behold, Nana was born, a name that suits my friend well, but best of all, she likes it.

I remember my own father, who was barely comfortable with the title of Dad, let alone Grandpa, so a few years into his grandfather stint he requested my little kids switch from his previous title of Grandpa, to Oompa. It was too late by then. The kids knew him as Grandpa, and that was that. Grandpa stuck.

My twin is a Grandma, as is friend Canda. Friends Pat, Judy and Cindy are respectively, Mimi, Nonni and Gran.

My two Cottonwood grandchildren have a slew of grandparents, thanks to blended and extended families: one Grammy, two great-grandmas, one Nana, one Gigi and one Noni — that’s me. They have a Papa, and they had a Grand dad and a Grandpa. Poor kids. I don’t know how they keep us all straight.

I lucked out with Noni, which I made up. It’s a derivative of Nonni, because I’m a wanna-be Italian. But my Noni name is not pronounced the Italian way, with a long “o”, but rather, it rhymes with my name, Doni.

No offense to all the Grannys out there, but I knew for sure I didn’t want to be one, because it conjured up images of Ma Clampet; some old gal with a gray bun, a shotgun, and, of course, granny glasses.

Ma Clampet, also known as Granny, played by Irene-Noblette.

But Granny is exactly the name one of my children threatened to have her offspring call me as a punishment if she gave birth to identical twins, as if that would be my fault, just because I happen to be an identical twin.

Identical twins Doni, left, and Shelly, play tea party as they celebrate having their bangs cut.

… And just because my father’s family is riddled with identical twins.

This Chamberlain family portrait from the early 1900s shows multiple sets of twins, including Doni’s grandfather Chamberlain, one of the twin boys wearing a dark tie and a light-colored shirt.

So far, no twin grandbabies, so I’m still Noni, the only name my grandchildren know to call me, to the point where they look confused and wrinkle their noses if someone mistakenly refers to me as their grandmother.

She’s not our grandmother! She’s our Noni!

Be still my heart.

Yes, there was a time when all American grandmothers were simply called grandma or grandmother, and grandfathers were simply called grandpa or grandfather. And in previous generations, the most extravagant titles that departed from the standard Grandma and Grandpa were strictly for clarification: Grandma and Grandpa Smith, or Grandma and Grandpa Jones, for example.

Blame his naming game on us Baby Boomers, dis-satisfied with the grandparently status quo, because we shun old age, including old-timey titles. Even so, it’s mainly we grandmothers who’ve really embraced this second chance for a shot at a new name, helped along by more options. (See Mimi, Gigi, Nana, Nonni, above.) Granted, there are also names that few grandmothers would want, such as Mee Maw, but to each her own.

Pity the guys, because there aren’t many options after Grandpa or Grandfather, other than Papa, or PawPaw.

Times have changed, and so have grandparents’ names. If you or someone you love has grandparenthood in your future, you get one shot to pick a name and stick with it. Choose early and choose wisely. Or end up being called MeeMaw and CaCa. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

That’s my belated Grandparents’ Day gift to you. You’re welcome.


Noni Doni


Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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25 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    My favorite saying that I live by,
    Grandpa is the name,
    Spoiling is the game.

  2. Avatar erin friedman says:

    Grand parenting is my all-time favorite job. I’m Meemer – a name my daughter came up with for me when she was a teen. She and her friends called me that and it stuck – and I like it. I grew up with “Grandma and Granddad” and my kids called my dad “Poppy.” But Craig wanted to carry on HIS family’s tradition. Annie and I were secretly sure the little girls would come up with an abbreviated version, but they all lovingly run to him, shouting “Grandfather!”

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      My cousins’ friends congregated at my aunt’s home, and she was Mammer to the whole gang. When grandchildren came along, they all called her Mammer, too. Close to Meemer.

    • Meemer is a fine grandmother name. And I love the sweet formality of Craig’s “Grandfather” title.

      I agree that grandparenting is awesome. I’m a much better grandmother than I was a mother.

      • Avatar erin friedman says:

        I am too! Where was this patient, focused woman when my kids were young? Oh, yeah, she was a work-in-progess and trying to get things done. 🙂 It’s helpful to have the perspective of age – and knowing how fleeting EVERY moment of childhood is. Enjoy!

  3. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    My sister-in-law married into a Greek family where a grandmother is Yia-Yia and a grandfather is Papoo (accent on the second syllable: PaPOO but not strongly accented) which I find as unattractive as CaCa. My cousin’s name is Claudia Jo, and the child of one of her friend calls her CaCa Jo. She tried having that as a personalized license plate but was turned down. My own grandmothers were Nana and Granny.

  4. Great topic, Doni. My “youthful” grandparents were Nana and Papa, an my not-as-youthful grandparents were Grandma Anna and Papa Moish (the Yiddish name for Morris). Since I spend so much time in Africa, I went with the grandmother name in South Africa, which is Gogo. Another one that I find particularly sweet is from Uganda – Jjaja, but that might be harder for a toddler to pronounce without morphing it into something else. The double jj is not a typo, by the way. In Luganda, they use a lot of double consonants.

  5. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    Hallmark holidays are my least favorite, so though I absolutely love being a grandpa, I have no problem with Grandparent’s Day failing to find fashionable fecundity as a marketable commodity.

    I’m “Grampa” to my two Sacramento grandkids, and “Grampy” to my Redding grandkid. My wife is “Gramma” to all.

    My in-law wanted the Sacramento grandkids to call her “Análí Asdz????.” (How do you pronounce that? Fuggifiknow.) It’s the Navajo designation for paternal grandmother. She’s zero percent Navajo, and though I can’t abide the PC “cultural appropriation” prohibition against incorporating Native American words into common usage, I’m happy to report that this preposterous and vainglorious attempt at separating herself from the rest of grandparents’ pack failed like a lead balloon.

    The oldest grandkid was like, “Umm……not only no, but HELL no.”

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      I firmly believe that the only functional reason for people of my age cohort to go on living—from an evolutionary perspective—is to help take care of grandkids. I think it’s a failing of modern society that so many grandparents are unwilling, unable, or separated by distance from this function. If it were up to me, it’d be my full-time job.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        (That was supposed to be a reply to Erin.)

        • Avatar erin friedman says:

          Gotcha. Playing with my grandchildren is, hands-down, the most important thing I do. I know I have just a few years when they enthusiastically want me around. I intend to suck up every moment – fortunately they are only 2 minutes away. But I would follow them anywhere.

          • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

            I absolutely fear the day when the grandkids no longer desire the undivided and goofy attention that they get from Grampa, but I know it’s coming. I weathered losing my status as my grandson’s favorite person in the world—I held the position from about 2-4 years old—but I’m still in great standing, so it’s been fine.

            By the time they’re teens I’ll probably be desperately looking for ways to spend quality time with them that won’t bore them to death. (I should live so long.)

            In my opinion, the nicest thing my daughter has ever said to me: “Watching you with my kids reminds me that you’re a nurturer.”

      • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

        Steve, in olden times grand parents took care of the grandkids while the parents went hunting and farming. When the grand parents couldn’t care for the grand kids anymore those grands were left by a tree for the bears.
        I much prefer modern society’s answer to that by having assisted living homes for those grands to be cared for and visited by their family members.
        I can still take care for my grand kids and much prefer going to a home, when the time comes, than being left by a cactus for the scorpions.

        • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

          It’s hell getting old, and even more hellish feeling old. I have dark days when getting pushed out to sea on an ice flow sounds sensible and appealing, if it weren’t for missing out on watching the grandkids grow up. I’d rather have that be my end than to end up in some of the homes for the elderly that I’ve encountered.

          I have an in-law (another Grandpa to the Sacramento clan) whose about my age and has terminal cancer. I’m told he probably has less than a year. I can’t even imagine what it’s like, knowing that the granddaughter who just turned 3 will probably not remember you at all, and the 6-year-old’s memories will fade because you went too soon. I want to promise him that I won’t let them forget, but I honestly don’t know him well enough to make that happen.

      • Your grandkids are lucky to have you, Steve.

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      WordPress didn’t like the weird diacritical marks on the second Navajo word and replaced the characters with “????”. The word—sans the diacriticals—is “Asdzaa.”

  6. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I think “Granny Clampet” is a Hollywood construct. She probably would have been called “Mamaw Clampet” in her native Appalachian hillbilly dialect. (Anyone else read the novel “Mamaw” about Frank and Jesse James’ mother?)

    Speaking of the Beverly Hillbillies, here’s a grim trivia question: In a recurring role, who played Janet, a pretty secretary at the bank run by Mr. Drysdale, their banker and next-door neighbor. (Not Mr. Drysdale’s personal secretary, Miss Jane Hathaway, who was always hot for Jethro.)

  7. Avatar Carolyn Dokter says:

    We have nine grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren. We are proud to simply be called grandma, grammy, gram and grandpa, grampy or gramps.

  8. Avatar Carolyn Dokter says:

    I meant to add, I agree with you, Steve, “it’s hell getting old and even more hellish feeling old”.

  9. Avatar Janine Hall says:

    My best memories of childhood were with my Oma. Germany in 1963. Oma was my first grand parent and was to be my best of all time.

  10. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    My grandparents were from Poland. Babcia and Dziadek (we pronounced it Jaju).
    It’s not always possible, but when grandkids and loving grandparents get to hang out together, it’s one of the greatest gifts in the world; to the world. Everyone benefits. Grandparents have a more global view of the world, and if they’re retired have to time to give their grandkids experiences they couldn’t give their own kids because of time constraints.