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by Paula LaRocque on June 19th, 2011

We have celebrated Father’s Day for nearly a century, yet this tribute became an official national holiday only in 1966, when President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation declaring the third Sunday in June Father’s Day.  Even later—in 1972—Richard Nixon signed a law making Father’s Day a permanent observance.

The first Father’s Day was celebrated in Spokane, Wash., in 1910.  The commemoration was the creation of Sonora Dodd, whose father, William Smart, was a farmer who was widowed and raised his six young children alone.  As an adult, Sonora Dodd realized how selfless and courageous her father had been, and she wanted to thank him and all such fathers.

She chose June for the first Father’s Day because it was William Smart’s birth month.

In preserving, protecting, and nurturing his family, William Smart not only did what good fathers do, but he also did what the word “father” means.

“Father” has been an English word for as long as there has been an English language—and its root predates English by untold centuries.  How do we know?  Because it came from the Indo-European tongue, a major taproot for English.  The word’s form and pronunciation changed as Indo-European branched into different languages, but root and meaning stayed the same.

Simply stated, father descends from the Indo-European word for father, pater, which incorporates the ancient root pa, meaning to feed and protect.  From this same source came various forms—the Greek and Latin pater, the Sanskrit pitar, the Old English faeder, the Germanic fader, the English father.  The Indo-European pater became father because a consonant shift in the Germanic branch of Indo-European changed P to F, and T to TH.  (The P to F shift is seen, for example, in the P of pyr—as in pyromaniac or funeral pyre—becoming the F of the Germanic fire.)

So such renderings of father as fater, fader or fadre share the same root and meaning as the Latin pater, Spanish padre, Greek pappas, and French pere.  And whether transcribed as P or F, that ancient pa root denoted food or foodgiver in languages sharing Indo-European roots—extending logically over time to mean protector, progenitor, teacher, counselor, and the like.

From this root also came the Germanic food, fodder and forage, and the Greek foster.  In Latin (the consonant shift generally was not seen in Romance languages), it generated panis, meaning food; pascere, to feed; panarium, breadbasket; and pasture. Pan, panne and pain mean bread in different languages.  The English have pasties, the Americans pastries, and the French pattisseries.  We cook in pans, and we keep food in the English pantry, the French paneterie, the Latin paneteria.

A repast is a meal, and antipasto is what we eat “before the meal.”  Pamper originally meant to feed too much.

Patriarch, paternal, patron, pastor and pope also derive from this root and denote fatherly benefactors.  The Paternoster, the Lord’s Prayer, literally means “our father.”

So:  Happy Father’s Day to all you paters and papas who feed your brood—not just daily bread, but food for the heart and mind as well.  You are a blessing in what you do and in what you teach, as basic and indispensable to our culture as your name is to our language.  As the proverb declares:  “One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.”

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