I'm curious about the nickname the March sisters in Little Women use for their mother and I'd like to know its meaning and significance. After some research, it seems Louisa May Alcott used the nickname Marmee for her own mother in some of her letters, so I'm wondering if this was popular during the time period or if it was specific to Alcott's family.
It seems to be just a different spelling of "Mommy".
From this blog post written by someone involved with the musical Little Women (emphasis mine):
I was asked by one of the assistant stage managers why the girls refer to their mother as “Marmee”. To be honest, this question has haunted my mind for a few years and finding the answers was much harder than I expected, so I put the quest for the answer to rest. I called my great-grandmother, “Mamaw” and there are hundreds of different terms for mother that is used all over the United States. So, Marmee isn’t necessarily anything odd or unique from that day, one would assume.
In the book, the girls do address Marmee as “Mother” on several occasions along with “Marmee”. In the musical, it is only the latter. As I was browsing the internet, I was trying to research nicknames for mothers back in Alcott’s time and I bumped into a dialect website. In the beginning, Brandon, the director, wanted me to look into dialects from the time period…but trying to find accurate answers for 1860’s Concord proved to be challenging.
In Alcott’s time, and in the time set in the book, Alcott most likely spoke with an Eastern Massachusetts accents, meaning that it was non-rhotic..aka…she dropped her r’s. Sounding similar to a Boston accent, this is just a theory. And then it hit me. Drop the r from Marmee and you have a different way of spelling Mommy.
A letter published in the New York Times subscribes to the same theory, and provides even more supporting evidence (again, emphasis mine):
Wineapple mentions the unusual nickname — “ ‘Marmee,’ as her daughters called her” — but does not discuss its pronunciation. The Alcott (and March) girls, New Englanders all, would have pronounced the “r” as “ah” when they referred to their mother. In other words, they called her “Mahmee” — or “Mommy”!
As the archivist of the town of Brewster, Mass., I have found many other examples in old letters and other papers of the New England r/ah pronunciation. The more usual parental nicknames “Ma” and “Pa” are sometimes written “Mar” and “Par,” and in a reverse instance, the once common first name “Desire” was often written, even in official documents, as it was evidently pronounced: “Desiah.”
I think this is enough to conclude that it was a common thing, not just in Alcott's family, and - when you take accent into account - not so strange either.
Marmee is actually an old English word. At that time it wasn't pronounced 'Mar-mee' but rather 'Mah-mee' as at that time 'r' would be pronounced as 'ah'.