Amah (occupation)

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A Chinese amah (right) with a woman and her three children

An amah or ayah (, German: Amme, Medieval Latin: amma; or ayah Hindi: āyā or amma, Portuguese: aia, Latin: avia, Tagalog: yaya) is a girl or woman employed by a family to clean, look after children, and perform other domestic tasks.


It is a domestic servant role which combines functions of maid and nanny. They may be required to wear a uniform.

The term, resembling the pronunciation for "mother" (see Mama and papa), is considered polite and respectful in the Chinese language.


The word amah may have originated from the Portuguese ama meaning "nurse".[1] Some however argued that it is the English form of the Chinese word ah mah (ah is a common Chinese prefix, and mah means "little mother"), while others say that it originated as nai mah (wet nurse in Chinese, literally "milk mother").[2] This word is common in East Asia, South East Asia and India to denote a maidservant or nursemaid.[3]

Variants such as Amah-chieh or mahjeh (chieh or jeh means elder sister in Chinese dialects) have also been used in some countries.[1][2] In China, amah may even refer to any old lady in general. In Taiwan and southeastern China where the Minnan language is spoken, amah refers to the paternal grandmother. Similar terms in the same context includes ah-yee (Aunt), yee-yee (aunt), or jie-jie (elder sister). Since the mid-1990s, it has become more politically correct in some circles to call such a person a 'helper' rather than a maid or ayah.

In Tamil, an ancient Dravidian language of more than 3000 years of recorded history and one which is still spoken by more than 75 million people worldwide, 'Amma' means 'Mother', and it is used as a postfix as well to mean 'the person is a woman/ the woman is somewhat respectable like a mother'. The word 'Amma' is pronounced without stressing the 'm' too, like in 'Ama'. Similarly 'Ayah' means grandmother, and it also denotes a maidservant (especially midwives and wet-nurses) since much of such work used to be done by grandmothers, especially in rural households, which are the majority in Tamil country. The word 'Ayah' itself is derived from the old Tamil word 'Aayee', meaning a respectable lady, that is, 'mother'. In Tamil culture, Mother is the most respected, even placed about one's god. So, most respectable.

Other meanings[edit]

During the Tang dynasty in China, the word amah was used as an informal and poetic title for the Taoist goddess, the Queen Mother of the West. Amah also means mother in many countries.

In English literature[edit]

Amah and ayah have been adopted as loanwords into the English language:

She never remembered seeing familiarly anything but the dark faces of her Ayah and the other native servants, and as they always obeyed her and gave her her own way in everything, because the Mem Sahib [her mother] would be angry if she was disturbed by her crying, by the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.
When Tony and his sister arrived they wanted to go straight to the pond, but their ayah said they must take a sharp walk first, and as she said this she glanced at the time-board to see when the Gardens closed that night.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ooi Keat Gin (2013). Dirk Hoerder, ed. Proletarian and Gendered Mass Migrations: A Global Perspective on Continuities and Discontinuities from the 19th to the 21st Centuries. BRILL. p. 405. ISBN 978-9004251366. 
  2. ^ a b Nicole Constable (2007). Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers. Cornell University Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0801473234. 
  3. ^ In India, ayah is the more common variant, and this Anglo-Indian word originated from the Portuguese aia meaning "nurse", feminine form of aio meaning "tutor". "Ayah". Oxford Dictionaries. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Suzanne E Cahill Transcendence & Divine Passion. The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8047-2584-5