Southern Naming Traditions

Knee Babies, Meemaws, and Ontees

boy splashing with grandfather at lake
Henglein and Steets / Getty Images

If you're a grandparent from the Southern United States, you may already know that names and nicknames are done a little differently south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Let's start with Southern grandparent names. The most common grandmother names seem to be Grandma and Gramma, sometimes with a "w" attached to create Grandmaw and Grammaw. Another popular choice is Mawmaw or Meemaw, sometimes spelled MawMaw or MeeMaw. You may also hear such colorful variations as Big Mama and Two-Mama. Granny and Grannie are heard in the South, too, although they seem to take a back seat to names containing "ma" or "maw."

Southerners don't seem to need as much variety in their grandfather names. Pawpaw or PawPaw and Papa or PaPa are the most common choices, as well as the classic Grandpa or Grandpaw.

Southern Nicknames

A mother might have a new baby, a baby, and a knee baby all at the same time. The new baby would be an infant, and the baby would be a little older, sometimes called a hip baby because he or she could be carried on the hip. The knee baby would be the one who might be standing by the mama's knee as she nurses the new baby.

In the South, it is common to refer to children as Sister or Sissy, and Brother or Bubba. These are used as substitutes for given names, as in, "Tell Brother to come in for supper."

Grandfathers also seem to have the duty of giving nicknames to their grandsons. Some popular choices are Hoss, Buster, Slim, Peewee, and Peanut. They also often call their grandsons by their initials. They don't seem to take nicknames for granddaughters quite as seriously, although they may hand those down, too. 

Aunts or Aunties are also important members of the family, although sometimes pronounced as "Onts" or "Ontees."

More Naming Traditions

Southerners are often ridiculed for their habit of giving double names, like Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue. Actually, they don't give their children more names than anyone else. They just tend to use the first name and the second name, even when they aren't mad at their kids. 

In addition, Southerners tend to recycle names. Instead of going the "junior" route, they may just reuse a part of an older relative's name. In that way, a child can have his or her own name and yet be tied to earlier generations. It's common to give a son, for example, his father's first name and a different middle name. In this case, the middle name is often the name that is used. At large family reunions, you may encounter several children who share a name, and it's likely that many more share middle names.

In an earlier time, children were sometimes named after Southern heroes like Robert E. Lee. It also used to be very common to hear nicknames like Sweetie and Honey applied to perfect strangers. In this more politically correct time, both of these traditions are on the wane. But the naming game is still a little different down South.