Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill

By Maeve Maddox

One of our readers used this expression in a recent comment:

make a mountain out of a mole hole

I assumed that the writer had intended to write the common expression

make a mountain out of a molehill.

I was about to shrug it off as a typo and move on when I thought I’d just Google the unfamiliar version.

I found enough examples to indicate that the reader’s version is in fairly common use. I found the “mole hole” version in headlines, subject lines, comments and serious articles. Here are a few examples:

The media paints the picture of a mountainous recession, but it may simply be a mole hole of slow growth that we must conquer. The Fed is creative and seemingly cogent enough to get the economy through its current stress. —New N Economics

However, Mr. Dubad gave us the impression that the sky is falling apart and a civil war is in the offing. He made a mountain out of mole hole. —The Somaliland Times

Think too hard and you’ll over think the problem. Consider the size of the problem too much and you’ll make a mountain out of a mole hole. –Quest Venture Partners

The English word mole has various meanings:

1. a spot on the skin
2. a burrowing animal
3. a wall or other barrier built in the sea to hold back water
4. a unit of molecular quantity
5. a spy (figurative use because, like a mole, a spy burrows in darkness)

It is the second sense that gives us “molehill.” The word mole may come from mouldwarp, lit. “earth-thrower.” Moles tunnel beneath the earth. A surface opening to a tunnel is often marked by a little pile of earth, a molehill. A molehill is not very large, but it is shaped like a mountain. A person who makes a big fuss over a small matter is said to be making a mountain out of a molehill.

Here’s an example of the expression from over 400 years ago:

“To much amplifying thinges yt. be but small, makyng mountaines of Molehils.” [John Foxe, “Acts and Monuments,” 1570]

It’s not clear to me why molehills should have morphed into mole holes. I can see an immediate connection between a molehill and a mountain, but not between a mole hole and a mountain. Wouldn’t an exaggerated hole be more like a crater or a lake than a mountain?

In researching the expression I came across numerous tourist retreats called “The Mole Hole.” Perhaps their existence has contributed to the shift.

I know. I’m just making a mountain of a mole—-.

Here’s an amusing photo of a series of molehills apparently on their way to becoming a mountain.

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8 Responses to “Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill”

  • Brad K.

    Maeve,

    The picture you cite looks more like pocket gopher mounds. I assume the photographer takes poetic license, using his photo as depicting either a mountain or evidence of a mole burrow.

    The times I have found moles have usually been when the distinctive winding mounds show up in the lawn. Moles dine on grass and other plant roots, and when feeding make shallow tunnels at root level. The plants and roots are forced up a fraction of an inch, maybe 1/4 to 3/4 of an inch, depending on soil and plant root configuration.

    Aside from the inaccuracy of identification of the items in the photo, though, it does accurately indicate the immense scale of proportionate difference that the phrase depicts.

  • Maeve

    I have numerous raised mole tunnels in my yard at the moment. No hills, but lots of heaps. My neighbor, on the other hand, has a really truly molehill.

  • Rod

    I thought mole hole was right because of its resemblance to cartoon burrows dah! but it’s good to know the correct expression.
    in order to avoid the misuse of sayings and idioms thanks.

  • Brendan

    Here is something that bothers me, even though a Google search would say its likely correct:

    “more than two weeks has passed”

    Shouldn’t it be “have passed”?

  • cameron

    I am assuming it morphed because the “hills” are created by the mole digging “holes.” That’s just a guess on my part, though.

    And Brendan, the subject of your phrase is “more,” so the correct expression is “more has passed” not “have.” “Weeks” is merely the object of the preposition “than” and is not part of the subject-verb agreement.

    Cheers!

  • Stephen Thorn

    And, of course, there is the nuclear-age version of that old maxim — What do nuclear bombs do? Make molehills out of mountains. (grin)

  • spike1

    Brad…
    We don’t get gophers over here in old blighty.
    But we do get moles and that photo in the article was definitely of molehills.

    Oh, and they eat earthworms, not plant roots.

  • Rebecca

    Hi Maeve Maddox

    Touche.

    I saw that you linked to me, and have corrected the title.

    Rebecca (News N Economics)

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