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The term "Doula" in modern Greece

[the following article was published in International Doula Journal, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2013]

A research into the ‘birth of a word’ and differences in meaning

This paper was ‘born’ after heated discussions between Greek doulas and other birth professionals, expressing their utmost disagreement and outrage towards the term ‘doula’ used internationally. A few years ago, some people had proposed a petition so that the term ceases to be used. Their disagreement is based on the common current use of the Greek word doula – ‘δούλα’ - which means ‘slave’.

A simple search of the word ‘doula’ in an electronic search engine will show us results connected to the new meaning of an old word: a word that is considered ancient Greek, deriving from the Greek word ‘doula’.

According to my research so far, the word is not Greek: it has foreign roots, unknown, probably from the East (since slavery began in the East). The word is used during the ancient times, since the Mycenaic era, initially read as “doelos” and then “doulos” (male “doula”), and reflected the way of life and social dynamics.

There was a difference between the ‘born slave’ (= “doulos/doula”), and the war captive (=”andrapodon”). Later, in Byzantine times, the word “slave” came about, from the Slavic war captives. It was used in Greek as well as in Latin, and had the same meaning as the word “doulos” (masculine for doula).

The word “doula” has the same roots as the Greek word “douleiá” (δουλειά), a word that is still used in everyday language, to mean either ‘slavery’ (when the accent is on “douleía” - δουλεία) or ‘work’ (when the accent is on ‘douleiá’ -δουλειά), in which case there is usually no negative connection to “slavery”. The word “douleia” came to be from the forced labor that the slaves were expected to do, and it slowly changed to be any kind of paid work, both physical and mental. The word “ergasia” (εργασία) (another Greek word for ‘work’) had to do with manual work (handicraft), usually when working on materials and objects, and also came to be used for both physical and mental work.

This is as far as the word is concerned. As for its meaning, becoming a “doulos/doula” was initially an act of grace on the part of the winners in a war: they would allow the defeated to live, and they, in return, would offer their services in the family, in a spirit of gratefulness. The ‘master’ had serious responsibilities towards his slaves, e.g. to provide enough food for them and acceptable conditions of living and work, and if he fell back on his responsibilities, the slave had every right to leave without being prosecuted. In certain families, the slave, if he was of noble roots and had a superior intellectual background than his master, would take on the children’s education. In a similar way, the female “doula” cared for the family and the children, as an integral part of family life.

The term ‘doula’ as used today is an English ‘neolinguistic’ term. It was introduced to North America in the 1970s by Dana Rafael, in her book “The Tender Gift: Breastfeeding” to refer to a caring knowledgeable woman who comes into the home and “mothers the new mother”[1]. Doctors Marshall Klaus and John Kennell conducted research in the breastfeeding and birthing fields and their research showed dramatic changes in the outcome as well as the degree of satisfaction from the birth experience, if the woman was accompanied by another woman. In their search for an appropriate term for this ‘mother figure’, while already aware of the term doula used for supporting the new mother and recognizing that the birth companion was like a doula for the birthing mother, the doctors suggested the same word as an appropriate one for both birth and postpartum support people. Dana Rafael came to agree with that use of the word and did not object to stretching her original definition.[2]

Some years after, when the word travelled the continents and arrived in Greece, there were strong negative reactions. Some other words were given as alternatives, like “paramana” (meaning ‘next to the mother’) and there were requests for the term to be abandoned for its negative associations. This proved impossible, since the term is already widely used by most of the world, both English and non-English speaking, in the fields of childbirth.

Keeping in mind that language is an alive organism and does change through time, we also need to bear in mind certain linguistic rules, so that we can remain in touch with the linguistic past.

In reality, this is a word, like many others, that happens to have a Greek root, thus confusing its current meaning. In fact, it is a totally new word, with a ‘borrowed’ external form. The western world in which it is used does not have to change it, since it is successfully integrated. The Greek speaking world, where the role of the professional doula is recently being introduced, would need to find a new term, as using the same word with two different meanings would only bring more confusion. When a word is already in use in the modern language (as the word “doula”), we cannot ignore its current meaning, adopting it with a totally different meaning. If it were a ‘dead’ word, that would be re-introduced in the modern Greek language, it would be a different story.

Also, when a term and a role is ‘being born’, we hold responsibility on its success and acceptance by the society. On top of that, we need to research and respect previous translations of the term (in this case, it has already been translated as “mother assistant” in some Greek books), or else present serious arguments for its change.

Indeed, there are many examples of words with Greek roots that are used internationally with a totally different meaning in English, than their initial meaning in Greek: words like empathy, sympathy, episode, paradigm, climax, etc… Moreover, the word “doula” is now totally integrated in the English language, being used both as a noun and as a verb (“doula-ing a mother”), and holds a remote morphological connection to its Greek root, but not a connection regarding its meaning.

Despite all this, I think it is important to keep something from this remote linguistic knowledge and connection: The ancient Greek “doula” was there to listen and follow the wishes of the mother, offering her services and life experience, but also aware of the humbleness her position asked for. I consider this a very important ingredient in the services provided by the modern doula. Often ‘specialists’ overwhelm the mother with tons of information and in the end make her feel even more dependent and inexperienced, instead of empowering her to find her own ways to bring to life and raise her children. The doula is next to the mother, the baby and the family, offering discreet care and creating the space and circumstances so that she herself can find the right answers for the growth of her family.


“Dictionary of the Modern Greek Language», G. Babiniotis, Athens 1998, lexicology Center

«Slavery», Maurice Lengellé, Athens 1965, Zacharopoulos publishers

«Bonding», Phyllis & Marshall Klaus, John Kennell, Athens, 2004, Reo publishers

«The Doula Book», Phyllis & Marshall Klaus, John Kennell, USΑ 2002, Da Capo Press

[1] That person would care for the new family by teaching and assisting with newborn care and feeding, identifying and helping solve any problems that come up, and helping to keep the household running smoothly. She was sometimes likened to one’s favorite aunt, who had 6 children of her own! Rafael even trademarked the word. So the term originally referred to what we’re now calling the postpartum doula.

[2] The definition of ‘doula’ as it appears in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2005): “[Mod. Greek, female helper, maidservant, from Greek doule, female slave] (1981): a woman experienced in childbirth who provides advice, information, emotional support, and physical comfort to a mother before, during, and just after childbirth.” Merriam-Webster took that definition from Klaus, Klaus, and Kennell’s book, “Mothering the Mother,” the new edition of which is now titled “The Doula Book.”


The purpose of this website is just for information.

We are not giving medical or other advice, we offer insights and knowledge about natural preparation, birth and after the birth and where you can find help about it.

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