Fionnuala O Connor: What's in a name and what does it say about us?

<span style="color: rgb(51, 51, 51); font-family: sans-serif, Arial, Verdana, &quot;Trebuchet MS&quot;; ">GAA washing gets done by &lsquo;mammies&rsquo; not &lsquo;mummies&rsquo;</span>
GAA washing gets done by ‘mammies’ not ‘mummies’ GAA washing gets done by ‘mammies’ not ‘mummies’

He called her Mum, I called her Mammy but though those very different names struck us both – for a long time secretly - as dislikeable, the difference wasn’t a dealbreaker. We didn’t call the whole thing off.

It’s been swell Isabel, swell, good for the brain and the prejudices too. Largely on personal experience, with a sideways look at the siblings who chose the same path, it is tempting to recommend what this society calls ‘mixed marriage’ as a cure for bitter division. (Though our mother thought we only did it to annoy her.)

Kevin McAleer’s genius riff on the lovely children that emerge from Tyrone and Armagh mixing adds to the temptation to talk it up as the way to liberate us from mutual ignorance and therefore suspicion. Get to know each other behind public faces, under the surface, talk out the fears. ‘Mixing’ doesn’t work though on a society-wide scale. Study suggests that the bulk of mixed marriages go quiet about their differences and above all about the political clash. Or they go away. Internal or real exile is the choice many make.

This place some call the north is all the homeplace any of us has. We’re all one, the same people. Though what others mean when they insist on our bone-deep resemblance is that they wish we would take ourselves off their agendas, their consciences and, in fact, their maps. Those mistakes the weather forecasters make are not really mistakes. Truth will out.

Supposedly, we have more in common than we have with anyone else. Except two almost totally different understandings of history, a far more significant difference than what we call our mothers. As well as habits and sayings and the different words and names we use without a thought of where they come from.

But here we are, in the midst (though maybe only in the first stages) of the worst catastrophe since the Troubles, crying for our mammies. Or our mums. Did one of those words give you a shiver? Truth, now. Arlene Foster tried for mild humour when she tweeted that it was hard to imagine stopping Northern Ireland students taking their washing home at the weekend to their ‘mums.’ Or maybe it was ‘mummies.’

Duff note. GAA washing gets done by ‘mammies’ not ‘mummies.’

Or so this old ma thought, doing a rigid sectarian assessment. Are traditional BBC Radio Four announcer voices and old-fashioned first reading-books soaked in English middle-class images, not the model for northern Protestants anxious about, even obsessed by sounding as un-Irish as possible? And what could be more Irish Catholic than a mammy.

By coincidence, smack on top of this train of thought, a smart young southerner (Irish south, not English south) happened along in time to get an earful of how alien ‘Mammy’ is to your average northern Protestant and how ‘Mum’ or ‘Mummy’ couldn’t pass the lips of a northern Catholic. The very next day SDLP minister Nichola Mallon, almost certainly of Catholic origin, tweeted something using the word ‘mum.’

A fair share of the English-speaking world once they reach adulthood surely talks about their parents as ‘mother’ and ‘father’ rather than mum or dad so as not to sound sentimental, immature, even babyish. All the same, I hear alarm bells in the distance. If you start this kind of thing – and by you I mean me - are you straight into the classic prejudice of ‘can tell them apart by the look of them’, the way they pronounce ‘h’?

Is there anything in this argument worth defending? Like ‘mammy’ being an obvious relative of the Irish ‘mamaí’, so an almost instinctive sound out of Catholic mouths, with the likelihood of Irish in a share of Catholic households somewhere in the background?

But maybe using private speech to classify people is an unworthy enterprise. Or just distraction. Better a walk in the soft rain.