Pauline Harris loves a word for "grandmother" that traces back to her Polish heritage: "Busia" (pronounced BOO-shah). She heard it often while growing up in a mostly Polish section of Canton and looked forward to the day when her grandchildren would call her that.
"But when my first grandson was born, he couldn't pronounce, 'Busia,'" said Harris, 52, who now resides in Federal Hill, Md. "He started calling me, 'Becka.'"
Close enough, she figured, as long as he doesn't call her "Grandma."
Harris is among many grandparents -- particularly baby boomers -- who have taken to foreign-language versions of "grandmother" and "grandfather." For many, it means connecting with their ethnic roots; for others, such words are just easy to pronounce or sound good. Some say the words are often among the first sounds their toddler grandchildren make -- they had no clue the words had meanings in other languages.
Some of the words or translations may differ in their original languages, but what's common among them is that the grandparents believe they have cultural significance. And for most grandparents, such words provide an opportunity to abandon monikers that seem outdated.
"When I think of Grandmom, I think of my great-grandmother or my grandmother," Harris added. "Plus I want my grandchildren to understand that 'Busia' ties to their ethnic background."
Even if, she says, they never learn to pronounce it correctly. Duane St. Clair's 4-year-old grandson, Kaiden, never quite learned to say "Grandpa." After a few tries, he came up with his own variation: "Baba." "I liked it; it was unique," said St. Clair, 59, of Columbia, Md., who took to the name -- even though the boy learned to call his wife, Janis, "Grandma." St. Clair liked "Baba" so much that he researched it for meanings in other languages, and he discovered that in Afghanistan, it is one of the terms for "grandfather" or "old man." "Baba" can also be used for "grandfather" in Turkmen (Turkmenistan). In Bulgaria, however, "baba" can also be used for "grandmother." "Baba" seems to be a popular name among those who didn't know of its origins. "That was just the first words that came out of their mouths, and it just stuck," said Carol Hawtof, 63, of Baltimore. She has three grandchildren who call her "Baba," and three who call her "Grandma." She was taken aback to know that "Baba" was used in other languages to denote grandparents. When her grandchildren started making sounds, "it was, 'baba, baba, baba,' and I said, 'That's me,' " she said. "The difference between them and the ones that call me 'Grandma' is that the ones who call me 'Baba' live out of town."
Some grandparents have taken to a word they've heard while traveling abroad. "I know of one grandmother who has adopted the name, 'Mama,' which is Jamaican for 'grandmother,' and believe me, she's not Jamaican," said Christine Crosby, founder and publisher of Florida-based Grand magazine. She said that among the most popular ethnic names for grandmother is the Serbian "Baka." Others include: "Yia Yia" (Greek), "Grand-mre" (French), "Ugogo" (Zulu) and "Abuela" (Spanish). "Today's grands are looking for a unique and personalized identification," added Crosby. "After all, they may be lucky enough to be called by these names for a very long time -- 20 to 30 years -- so they want them to fit their new hip image and lifestyles. "My grandchildren call me 'Grand-mre' because I announced that is what I'd like to be called. That came about when my first granddaughter, Shantell, was born. I wanted a name that matched her French name. While I have some French heritage, it wasn't my main motive." The Nick Jr. children's series "Ni Hao, Kai-lan" has introduced many to a Chinese word for "grandfather," which is "Ye'ye (informal, paternal)."
"A lot of people started a quest for grandparent names at the outset, and in their research they found that their heritage has very charming and meaningful grandparent names," said Lauren Charpio, author of the book, "You Can Call Me Hoppa! The Grandparents' Guide to Choosing a Name That Fits." Charpio added, "Sometimes people are selecting grandparent names that are cute and don't have a close correlation to their heritage. I know a number of families who have chosen the grandparent name 'tutu,' which has roots in Hawaiian tradition but they have no Hawaiian culture in their background. They like the way it rolls off their tongue." With grandparents now living more active lives than those of previous generations, they are also abandoning old stereotypes -- those of graying seniors with thick glasses and bad hearing who only see their grandkids during the holidays. Many grandparents, particularly those who play major roles in their grandchildren's lives, seem more than happy to part with the old labels. "A lot of people don't feel that they're old enough to be a grandparent. We don't see ourselves as aging; we see ourselves as young," said St. Clair. "That ties in with how we see ourselves as grandparents." Annette Saunders, 59, of Baltimore said her grandparents had died before she was born. She said that the word "nana" was used affectionately for grandparents and great-grandparents in her husband's family. When her 18-month old granddaughter, Maykhia, was born, Saunders taught her to say, "nana" to distinguish her from the child's paternal grandmother. She wasn't aware that "nana" is used in some English-speaking countries, including parts of Australia.