“How are we going to spell your grandmother’s name?” I asked Howard Brown as we were editing his inspiring memoir Shining Brightly. We were discussing “this tough little woman who was born in an impoverished Eastern European shtetl yet managed to reach the safety and opportunities of America where she could build a better life for her descendants.”
I needed Howard’s help, I told him: “Our editing style on spelling shtetl is clear cut, but how do we spell your grandma’s name—the name you used as kids? How are you most comfortable spelling that?”
“Well, how about Bubby—with a ‘y’? She was always Bubby Bertha to us,” he said. “I think of that word with a ‘y.'”
“But the Yiddish often is rendered Bubbe—with an ‘e’,” I said. “But this is a classic case in editing of how spelling isn’t always a matter of right and wrong. In publishing, the name also can be spelled Bubby or Bubbie. And, mainly, we want readers not to stumble over the word. We want them to feel comfortable with it, including how you all pronounced it in your family.”
So, the first sentence in Shining Brightly—which you can order from Amazon, by the way—is: “Living to 101, Bubby Bertha linked me to my family’s deepest roots.” You can see photos of Bubby Bertha, both young and old, and you’ll find the story about Bubby Bertha’s unforgettable lesson during a walk around her neighborhood with her grandkids in the first chapter of Howard’s book. (What’s that ‘unforgettable lesson’? Well, please get the book and enjoy it!)
I was reminded of this important point about spelling—as a tip for so many of our authors—by a delightful new book by journalist Katie Hankinson The A to Z of Grandparent Names: From Abba to Zumu.
Hankinson’s explanation of all the variations of “Bubby” appears early in her alphabetically arranged book.
Until I received this colorful little hardback in the mail, I had never heard of Cider Mill Press, which is based in Nashville and is an imprint of HarperCollins Focus. That’s an umbrella within the giant NewsCorp media empire that was set up in 2018 with a purpose that sounds a lot like our own Front Edge Publishing principles of publishing, which we established when our own creative team started in 2007.
The mission of this NewsCorp publishing group is to “enlighten and empower readers to transform their hearts and minds, connecting through story, advice, mentorship and community.” As always, our Front Edge team welcomes another team of publishing professionals who share our core values.
What’s in ‘The A to Z of Grandparent Names’?
As grandparents of preschoolers, my wife and I have been exploring the rich diversity of names for us that the youngest children are able to pronounce. To my grandkids, I’ve become “Pop Pop,” which Hankinson informs us is a regionally popular variant of “Papa.” She writes:
Papa is the most common nickname for grandfathers in 36 states. Those in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware tend to go for Pop or Pop Pop. Southerners are more likely to use Papaw or Pawpaw. Papaw is the most common name for grandpa in Alabama, West Virginia, Louisiana and Mississippi. Pawpaw is is most popular in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. No matter your roots, this name could be a great option for you!
Because I’ve been a journalist covering religious and cultural diversity for 50 years, I was aware of a lot of the regional variants in this book—from Abuela and Abuelo to Zayde. But I also discovered some new ones!
I did not know that Farmor and Farfar are popular in Sweden and in Swedish communities around the world, originating from northern Sami culture.
Greek culture presents another spelling challenge like Bubby, Bubbie and Bubbe. The affectionate Greek word for grandma, pronounced Ya-ya, can be spelled Gia Gia, Yaya or even YiaYia, depending on your family’s preference.
I also had not realized the extent to which celebrities have tried to promote new names for their status as grandparents. Hankinson reports that Goldie Hawn has been on a mission over the past decade or so to promote “Glam-ma” as a way, Hawn has said, to have some fun with the name and promote the ongoing “brilliance” of grandparenting. Among celebrities, I also did not know, until I read this book, that former President George W. Bush’s grandkids call him “Jefe,” or “boss” in Spanish.
And here’s a cultural fun fact I had never heard: In Texas, Hankinson reports, “Mimi” is the most popular grandmother name. In fact, I was so skeptical of that page in her book that I researched this name further and wound up reading a 2020 Parents magazine story by Kristi Pahr that clearly is an uncredited source for Hankinson’s page on “Mimi.” And, yup, Pahr’s research for Parents showed Mimi as a widely popular name across Texas.
The point of this rambling column is simply to advise editors and authors: There’s nearly always a fascinating back story to the way families refer to their elders. Those stories may seem to violate the rules in our favorite editing-and-writing style books—but nearly every contemporary style guide makes room for cultural diversity. Grandparents’ names clearly are a doorway into our families’ heritage and should be celebrated and explored.
Thanks to Kate Hankinson for illustrating this point so vividly in her new book!