Celebrity gossips are not known for their contributions to English letters. In tabloids, the copy is breathless, the headlines are stunningly literal, and the "hand-written" photo captions seem to toggle between "Awww!" and "Ew!" But as they zero in on celebrity mating and breeding rituals, the magpies keep breaking new linguistic ground. First they imported the British term bump, a noun used to refer to the protruding abdomen of a pregnant starlet. Then they awarded celebrity couples mash-up nicknames like "Bennifer," "Brangelina," and "TomKat." Now they've seized upon baby-daddy and baby-mama, two useful terms that have long appeared in hip-hop and R&B lyrics, and are slowly stripping them of their emotional fangs.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines baby-daddy as "the father of a woman's child, who is not her husband or (in most cases) her current or exclusive partner." The baby-mama entry follows the same template with the genders reversed. But some gossip writers have been adopting the first part of the definition and ignoring the second. Salon recently called Tom Cruise "Katie Holmes' baby-daddy," even though the couple is engaged. And Gawker refers to Keven Federline as "Britney Spears' baby-daddy," even though the couple has been married for more than a year.
Such usages would be unlikely in Jamaica, where baby-daddy has its roots. The OED lists baby-daddy and baby-mama as "colloquial, chiefly African-American" variants of the Jamaican terms baby-father and baby-mother; its first citation for baby-mother hails from the Kingston Daily Gleaner in 1966. The terms probably arose in Jamaican Creole—where they would have been pronounced "biebifaada" and "biebimada"—before taking hold in standard Jamaican English.
On the island, your baby-mother or baby-father is typically someone with whom you are no longer romantically involved. If you called your husband your "baby-father," he might be insulted—the term suggests biological fatherhood in the absence of any real parenting. The linguistics professor Peter L. Patrick, who studies Jamaican Creole, said the terms "definitely imply there is not a marriage—not even a common-law marriage—but rather that the child is an 'outside' child."
The terms soon landed in the lyrics of reggae and dancehall songs, which may be how they made their way to the United States. In 1981, a Jamaican musician named Linval Thompson wrote and recorded a song called "Baby Mother" that entreats men not to be rough with pregnant women—"Mind how you're pushing/ when you push on your baby mother"—because an unborn child might be a "king or queen … maybe a movie star." Thompson followed up with "Baby Father," a major hit that advised men to take responsibility for their kids. The opening line: "Baby father, don't run. Don't hide."
By the mid to late '90s, the terms baby-daddy and baby-mama were appearing regularly in American hip-hop and R&B songs, and the words were consistently used to refer to an ex. In a 1997 song by B-Rock & the Bizz *, a girl placates her jealous boyfriend: "That ain't nobody/ that's just my baby-daddy." In a song by Bass Patrol, a beleaguered boyfriend chants, "I don't know/ and I can't see/ why your baby daddy got beef with me." But it was the rapper Queen Pen who most succinctly captured the difficulties inherent in the relationship, in a song called "Baby Daddy": "I shouldn't a f-cked him."
Baby-mama hit the big time in 2000, in the OutKast chart-topper "Ms. Jackson." The song—which, as Andre 3000 put it, went out to all the "baby mamas' mamas"—details the singer's efforts to convince his ex-girlfriend's mom that he's serious about being a good dad, and it soon had Americans black and white singing along with the catchy chorus: "I'm sorry Ms. Jackson/ but I am for real!" OutKast even secured the term's place in the New York Times: It appeared outside of quotation marks for the first time in a 2003 profile of the band that calls "Ms. Jackson" a "conflicted ode to baby-mamas." (The line is cited in the current edition of the OED.)
These days, the terms no longer seem "chiefly African-American"—they're everywhere, the latest bits of hip-hop lingo to gain widespread use. Baby-daddy is the new bling. Online, you can buy "Jesus is my baby-daddy" magnets, tote bags, and beer steins. There is a drink called the "babymama." Scott Hoffman, the bassist for the glam rock band the Scissors Sisters, goes by the stage name "Babydaddy." Some of this cultural paraphernalia retains the old, loaded sense of the term: You can, for example, download a "Salty Baby Mama" ringtone so that when people call, your phone will jangle and thrum while a woman's voice says, "Baby, I know you hear this damn phone ringing. I'm going to beat your ass, as soon as I see you." But just as often, the connotations are strictly biological. Baby-mama has even made inroads in Japan, where it's being used on a Web site that appears to sell strollers.
Who knows why these terms became catchphrases? Perhaps it's just that they're metrically pleasing: Baby-mama and baby-daddy are undeniably fun to say. But it's the novelty factor that explains how the words lost their negative connotations. Sure, there are many gossip writers who still use the terms in their original senses (calling dancer Carlos Leon "Madonna's baby-daddy," for example) because they're useful, reducing a complex chain of possessives—Madonna's daughter's father—to a nice, comprehensible noun. But it seems there are also plenty of writers who just like the way the words sound and don't care much about the stigma once attached to babydaddyhood. When news came last week that Anna Nicole Smith may be pregnant, it was no surprise that bloggers immediately began speculating about the identity of the "baby daddy." It may be a long time before you hear a quaint, old-fashioned "Who's the dad?"