Long before last week's verdict in the Casey Anthony trial, viewers of Nancy Grace's Headline News program had gotten used to her referring to Anthony, accused of murdering her daughter Cayley, as the tot mom. She has done it so consistently that tot mom has essentially become a proper noun. After Anthony's acquittal, Grace ranted, "Tot Mom will be walking free," and "Tot Mom's lies seemed to have worked." People hearing tot mom for the first time sometimes ask if it's connected to another parenting-related compound word that has gained prominence in recent years: baby mama. Like tot mom, it means more than just a mother whose child is still a baby. A baby mama is an unwed mother, often one who makes trouble for her "baby daddy" with her "baby mama drama." Where did these extra meanings come from?

For years, copy editors have favored the short word tot in headlines for stories about young children. As far as I can tell, though, until the end of the 20th century, the only time tot and mom (or dad) appeared adjacent to each other in headlines was in stories about a child and a mother, such as "Tot, mom reunited." Where the child's mother or father was the focus of the story, copy editors wrote, and still write, tot's mom or tot's dad.

Tot mom seems to have debuted in longer, three- or four-word compounds, such as closet-tot mom, bus-stop tot mom, and tub-drown tot mom. Tot dad also appears, but much less often, and usually in British newspapers, in compounds like Madge tot dad and Anna tot dad. The only American one I've found is torture tot dad in 2008. These awkward compounds work only in situations where space limitations require elegance to be sacrificed for brevity, and readers have enough context to know who phrases like tub-drown tot refer to. Still, once you've been exposed to a few Headlinese noun phrases of the form X-tot mom, it's hard not to generalize to the existence of "tot moms" as a class of entities: mothers of children in dire or tragic circumstances.

To take tot mom from the headlines to spoken English, it took someone talking about abused children, and talking as if reading a headline. It took Nancy Grace. In July 2008, Cayley Anthony was reported missing, six weeks after she had last been seen. From Grace's August 12 broadcast:

Breaking news tonight. Police desperately searching for a beautiful little 3-year-old Florida girl, Caylee, after her grandparents report her missing, little Caylee now not seen for eight long weeks, last seen with her mother.

Grace doesn't use the phrase tot mom this time, but she is using the quasi-headline speaking style that became popular among TV newscasts after 9/11. (In his book Going Nucular, Geoff Nunberg names this style Inglish, for the bare –ing verbs that result from omitting the auxiliary verb be.) By October, Grace had begun using the phrase tot mom, in utterances like

she's set to appear personally before a judge to make her case, the tot mom petitioning the court to travel in secret, searching for Caylee.

A year later, Grace was referring to Casey Anthony as "tot mom" so often that not only had other news outlets begun to take notice, but also movie director Steven Soderbergh was inspired to write a play called Tot Mom based on the events.

Some speakers are happily unaware of the progression of tot mom from "mother of a small child," to the more specific meaning of "mother of a missing, abused, or murdered small child," to the maximally specific meaning of "Casey Anthony." One man wrote in to Yahoo Answers with the question, "Is it normal for a tot mom to barely ever sleep?", referring to his wife, "who worries about our kid at night." The creator of the Tot Moms blog is trying to make her own, positive additions to the meaning of tot mom, asserting that "A tot mom is enthusiastic, committed, hard working, loving, fun, and most of all, dedicated to [her] tots."

While tot mom was forged in the halting language of headlines, baby mama and baby daddy came from the fluent spoken language of African American English (AAE). They originate from baby's mama and baby's daddy, which carry no implication about marital status in and of themselves. Talk about a particular person's baby's mama or daddy, though, and the picture changes. When I talk about my baby's mama, a simpler way of putting it would simply be my wife... if my baby's mama actually is my wife. If not, then the most I can truthfully say is my baby's mama. So gradually, phrases like my baby's mama or your baby's daddy have gotten restricted to unmarried parents, while husband and wife occupy the space for baby's mamas and daddies that are married to each other.

This change seems to have occurred in the late '80s and '90s, in news articles and especially in rap music. In 1995, Eazy-E released "My Baby'z Mama," in which he cursed the mother of his children for breaking him with child-support demands and court orders. In a 1996 L.A. Times interview, Snoop Dogg mentioned being able to "chill with my baby and my baby's mama." A 1994 article in the York Daily Record recounts an incident in which a teenage girl says that a certain pop star is "going to be my baby's daddy," and her mentor admonishes, "Don't say 'my baby's daddy.' Say 'my husband' first, then, 'my baby's daddy.'" In 2004, the movie My Baby's Daddy revolved around three black men whose girlfriends all get pregnant.

A feature of AAE morphology gets us from baby's mama/daddy to baby mama/daddy. In AAE, possession isn't always shown with the 's suffix. It can be shown simply by having two nouns next to each other. Thus, Standard English (StdE) my friend's wife could be realized in AAE as my friend wife, and my baby's mama as my baby mama. (For more on this, see John McWhorter's article in The Root.) In 1997, the song "My Baby Daddy," by B-Rock and the Bizz, had a man repeatedly asking a woman, "Who dat is?" and being assured that it's "just my baby daddy." The group Anquette released a response in 1998 called "My Baby Mama." Demonstrating the variability of baby('s) mama/daddy, a cover version of "My Baby Mama" by Nut N 2 Nice had the lead singer saying "baby mama" while the backup singers sang "baby's mama." By 2008, baby mama was well-enough established in the culture at large to serve as the title of a movie starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Although there's no meaning difference between baby's mama/daddy and baby mama/daddy in AAE, when StdE speakers encounter baby mama/daddy, something has to give. In StdE, the only way to interpret baby mama/daddy is as a compound word, like tot mom. You can tell this has happened because of how the word is stressed. In rap songs, baby mama/daddy has approximately the same amount of stress on each of its words, just as baby's mama/daddy does. But speakers of StdE will put the primary stress on baby, and destress mama/daddy, the same way they put the main stress on flare in flare gun.

If baby mama is a compound word, it must mean more specific than just mama, and the existing implication that a baby mama or daddy isn't married works just fine for that more-specific meaning. But the original, more literal meaning — that your baby mama/daddy is the mother or father of your child — sometimes gets lost. In 2007, when Nickelodeon teen star Jamie Lynn Spears was pregnant, an article in the Tampa Tribune was titled "Nickelodeon and the Baby Mama Drama," even though there was no mention of the baby's father in order to refer to Spears as his baby mama. Evidently, some speakers of non-AAE varieties of English interpret a phrase like Lisa's baby daddy to refer not to the father of Lisa's baby, but to the father of Lisa herself! Lisa's daddy is Lisa's daddy, whether he's a strong daddy, a mean daddy, or a baby daddy. On the American Dialect Society email list, Wilson Gray noted an even more striking usage. In three different Star Wars parodies on the web, Darth Vader says, "Luke, I am your baby daddy!" — an incestuous biological impossibility in AAE.

In high-school English class, I learned about the difference between a word's denotation and its connotations. What I didn't learn then, but what tot mom and baby mama show, is how easy it is for a word's connotations to become its denotation.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 11th 2011, 1:58 AM
Comment by: Aj.Scribe (Dallas, TX)
The compound value of Nancy Grace and her moribund metaphors are inflammatory abuses of public innocence by association. Baby Mama has quite a different connotation than "TOT-MOM" grrrr--as in denoted.
Monday July 11th 2011, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Nancy Grace has an instinct for captivating a certain register of the public mind (I admit to partaking myself, sometimes guiltily) and her ownership of this term is an integral part of the whole package. She never fails to spit out the words -- in a way that makes it clear her verdict on this case came in a long time ago. It will be interesting to see if the term survives with its current connotation after the flames around the story have died down.
Monday July 11th 2011, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Betje K.
This is a very interesting piece and I love your final paragraph. To soothe my intellect's conscience, however,I wish the thesis about the rapid shift from connotation to denotation had come earlier so that I would feel that I was reading a demonstration of the premise instead of dipping my thought-stick back into our summer's public murk!

What you didn't mention (in these days of ubiquitous monolingualism) is that TOT is the German word for DEAD. For anyone who knows even a smattering of German, TOT would resonate at some level, even visually since TOT suggests a head with a cross on either side. Constantly conjoining DEAD + MOM ? Perhaps Ms. Grace did not know that at the outset, but likely someone mentioned it to her some time during this ordeal.
Monday July 11th 2011, 6:35 PM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
An excellent article, but how sad. The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's phrase “defining deviancy down” is apprpriately descriptive of what has happened (is happening) to our language and our culture.
Monday July 11th 2011, 7:03 PM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
Cudos to Nancy Grace for adding a useful pejorative term. The relevant terms have evolved from Widowed mother--->Single Mom--->baby mamma---->Tot mom. I love that these pejorative terms square with the gradual degeneracy of motherhood we see.
Tuesday July 12th 2011, 4:10 PM
Comment by: Carol V. (Pleasant Hill, IA)
Great article as a lead-in study for high school English classes on how society, culture, media, and texting are changing language. Can see students thinking about word connotations that are leaning toward literal denotations. Could lead to interesting classroom conversations.

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