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Conception of a Question: Who's Your Daddy?

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page C01

It's not really a question, even with that punctuation mark appended to the end. Instead, it's a demand, a boast, an all-around statement of superiority in three simple, yet quizzical words:

"Who's your daddy?"

Who, indeed. This question keeps popping up like an insistent prairie dog. It has been the title of a 2003 straight-to-video movie (starring Ali Landry, heretofore semi-famous as the Doritos spokesmodel), and of a popular song and video by the country singer Toby Keith in 2002. It was the chant by New York Yankees fans during the 2004 baseball playoffs, and the name of a new-low-in-reality-television "special" on the Fox network last night (adult female contestant, adopted as an infant, tries to guess which man is her biological father).

In other words, "Who's your daddy?" has gone mainstream.

Who knew?

While the phrase has its innocent overtones -- in the 1969 Zombies hit "Time of the Season," the singer investigates a potential love interest by inquiring, "What's your name, who's your daddy?" -- its most direct and historic meaning has been sexual. The origins of the full phrase are obscure, but the slang use of "daddy" has long been associated with prostitution. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the oldest usage dates to 1681, when the speakers were hookers who used the phrase in reference to their pimps or to an older male customer.

In old blues songs, dating to at least 1909, "daddy" is slang for pimp. The title of another number, from1926, spelled it out a little further: "How Can I Be Your Sweet Mama When You're Daddy to Someone Else?" Later on, the term was generalized in African American speech to mean any male lover, and had variants, such as "sugar daddy," that survive to this day, according to the slang dictionary.

The dictionary also offers this origin: "the partner who plays the dominant or masculine role in a homosexual relationship," for example, "jailhouse daddy."

The full phrase -- "Who's your daddy?" -- may have been given its first widespread airing by radio deejay Doug "Greaseman" Tracht in the late 1980s and 1990s on his syndicated radio program. Tracht used the term comedically, but left no doubt about its sexual aspects; Tracht put the phrase in the mouth of his imagined male characters while they were in the middle of "a zesty session."

Tracht, who lives in Potomac, said he first heard the reference in the Zombies song. "I converted it to have a spicy connotation," he said yesterday. "As men we want validation because we are such inept lovers . . . . It just kind of popped out of the blue."

Somehow, the phrase mutated enough in meaning to become acceptable enough to broader audiences (for instance, the Village People's 1978 song "YMCA," which started as an ode to anonymous gay sex and became a stadium crowd pleaser).

Keith, the country crooner, gave the phrase a suggestion of romance and protection for a hesitant lover when he sang, "And who's the one guy that you come runnin' to / When your lovelife starts tumblin'? / I got the money if you got the honey / Let's cut a deal let's make a plan . . . Who's your daddy, who's your baby? / Who's your buddy, who's your man?"

And 60,000 Yankees fans probably weren't considering the origins of the phrase when they chanted it at Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez during Game 2 of the American League playoffs on Oct. 13. This was a few weeks after Martinez, in discussing his frustrations about pitching against the Yankees, had said: "I can't find a way to beat them at this point. What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy."

Martinez, of course, was using "daddy" in its contemporary, whitewashed form -- to imply authority, dominance or power over another (example: "Oh yeah! I just cleaned you out in poker. Who's your daddy?!")

This kind of scrubbing of the crudest kind of slang goes on all the time, says Connie Eble, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Slang and Sociability: In-Group Language Among College Students." Unsavory terms that become acceptable are said by lexicographers to "ameliorate," or acquire a better connotation, she said. The process can go full circle, too, when a word with a neutral or positive connotation takes on a negative cast. The use of "suck" to mean "no good" or "defective" was considered shocking when it was first uttered on the prime-time sitcom "Uncle Buck" on CBS in 1990; now such a usage wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

And sometimes phrases go both ways at once. "Gay," for example, can have both positive and negative meanings at the same time, depending on the speaker, and sometimes different meanings simultaneously from the same speaker. A teenager might refer to a homosexual person as "gay" and mean no harm, but might also refer to a thing as "gay" to mean lame, said Eble.

So, why not "Who's your daddy?" Fox, in broadcasting its paternity-guessing game, has now semi-officially transformed the phrase, bled it of its unsavory history and rendered into a sly, semi-clever pun acceptable to at least a few million members of the vast American prime-time viewing audience.

You might say that bites, but you probably shouldn't.


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