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  • Writer's pictureSofi K. Batal

Nanny, nannie or the French 'nounou'?

nanny nourrice nounou

It's all so confusing really. Is it nanny, nannie, nounou or nourrice? The use of "nannie" by some French nanny recruitment agencies over the more traditional "nounou" or "nourrice" raises intriguing questions. Why won't they use the proper and existing French term, 'nounou' or 'nourrice', and would rather use the British term 'nanny'?

Table of Contents

  1. Ethymology of the term 'nounou'

The term "nounou" comes from the reduplication of the syllable [nou] which is derived from the word "nourrice." So what does 'nourrice' mean and why not use this perfectly well-formed and honourable French word?

2. What is a French 'nourrice'

The proper equivalent of the term 'nourrice' (from the latin nutrix) is 'wet nurse' in English. Wet nursing has a long history dating back to ancient times, as depicted in Greek and Roman myths. For example, Themis, a Titaness, acted as a wet nurse to Apollo (son of Zeus and God of poetry and music), while the founders of Rome, Remus, and Romulus, were nourished by a she-wolf.

So what is a French 'nourrice'? In 18th-century Paris, the middle class predominantly sent their babies to wet nurses in the countryside, where many faced perilous journeys. Each year, around seventy to eighty thousand Parisian infants were sent to the countryside. This trend peaked alongside the emergence of bottle feeding, which gradually reduced the wet nursing industry. Despite official bottle use and free milk distributions, traditional nursing practices persisted until World War I, leading to the rise of child caretakers called "bonnes d'enfants". The 'bonne d'enfant' is the equivalent of the historical and outdated English term 'nursemaid'. It all makes sense right?

3. The French nourrice today

Today, the term "nourrice" primarily refers to a childminder or "assistant maternelle' in French, who takes care of young children. The role of an 'assistante maternelle' today involves providing childcare, which may include feeding, playing, and ensuring the well-being of the children entrusted to their care. It does not necessarily imply the provision of breast milk, as was historically associated with wet nursing.

4. What is a nanny in French?

In French, a nanny is commonly referred to as "nounou". The term "nourrice" can also be used to describe someone who takes care of children, although it historically had a more specific association with wet nursing or breastfeeding. Today, many French nanny agencies prefer to use the English word "nanny" or even "nannie" to describe childcare providers instead of 'nounou'.

5. Perception of the term 'nounou'

In France, the term "nounou" is seen as too informal, lacking in professionalism, and carrying historical and cultural associations that might not align with the desired image of a more educated and professional childcare provider.

"Nanny" is generally considered a more formal and widely accepted term for private childcare providers, particularly in English-speaking cultures. It often implies a professional caregiver who may have formal training and takes on a more structured role in the care and development of children. The term "nanny" tends to convey a sense of expertise and formality that is absent in the French equivalent, making it a preferred choice for French nanny agencies.

6. The rise of the "nanny francophone"

Quite naturally, in recent years, the English influence on French has become increasingly apparent, with the adoption of English loanwords across various industries. In the world of childcare, the term "nanny" has found its way into French vernacular, sometimes with a unique twist – "nannie." So, don't be surprised if you hear a French nanny referred to as 'la nanny". It's not due to laziness, it's for lack of a better more accurate French word.

To sum up, a nanny, known as "nounou" in French, is derived from "nourrice," which means 'wet nurse' in English. Over time, the term evolved, leading to the adoption of "bonne d'enfant" in French, akin to the English term 'nursemaid.'

The word "nanny" likely evolved from the 18th-century affectionate term "nan" or "nanna," used to refer to a child's nurse or governess. It was a diminutive form that expressed familiarity and warmth. Over time, this term expanded to encompass those who cared for and nurtured children

Start the process of hiring a French-speaking nanny or nounou today.

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