The Meanings and Variations of “Mother”

By Mark Nichol

Mother derives from the Old English term modor, which is cognate with the Latin word mater and the Greek word meter. (From the Latin term such words as maternal and maternity are derived.) The term refers not only to a female parent but also to a woman in authority, such as the head of a women’s religious community; it was also long employed as a respectful term of address for an elderly woman (as in “Mother Goose”), though this use is almost obsolete. It may also apply to an origin, precursor, or source, as in the expression “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

A stepmother is a woman who marries one of one’s parents, and a mother-in-law is the mother of one’s spouse. Motherly describes maternal behavior, and motherlike alludes to a resemblance to the qualities of a mother. Motherhood describes the quality or state of being a mother.

The verb mother pertains to the act of producing biological or figurative offspring. Motherland describes one’s home country, although the term is most prevalent in Russia and adjacent nations as well as some in the Near East and seldom used elsewhere. Mother Nature is the maternal personification of nature as the source of all that exists in the natural world. Mother also appears in a compound word ending with an obscene term; in this form and by itself it can be, depending on context, a mild epithet or an extreme insult.

Open compounds that include the term mother include “earth mother” (meaning “a maternal figure”) “mother cell” (“a cell in an organism that produces usually different types of cells”), “mother hen” (“an overly protective person”), “mother lode” (“a primary mineral lode or vein” or “a primary source or supply”), “mother wit” (“natural intelligence or wit”), and “mother ship” (“a ship that serves smaller vessels”). “Refrigerator mother,” a label once applied to cold, distant, unmaternal mothers, was coined as part of a since-rejected theory for the cause of autism. A stage mother, meanwhile, is one who pressures a child to participate in the performing arts and demands special treatment for him or her; the term is derogatory, with the implication that a she is living vicariously through the child.

Compounds employing the informal variant mom include “helicopter mom,” which describes an overly protective mother, as well as “soccer mom,” a sometimes pejorative term for a specific demographic—a suburban mother who pushes her children to participate in extracurricular activities such as youth soccer leagues—and the related phrase “hockey mom,” which pertains to inhabitants of geographic regions where ice hockey is prevalent.

Expressions that use the term mother follow:

a face only a mother could love: said of an unattractive person
at (one’s) mother’s knee: alluding to learning something as a child
every mother’s son: an evocative way of saying “everyone”
everybody/everyone and (one’s) mother: a hyperbolic expression referring to a crowd
the mother of all (blank): a hyperbolic reference to the best or greatest of a type of thing
swear/swore on (one’s) mother’s grave: a hyperbolic reference to a solemn confirmation that one is telling the truth because of the association with the sanctity of a parent’s gravesite
tied to (one’s) mother’s apron strings: said of a man who has not asserted his independence from his mother

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1 Response to “The Meanings and Variations of “Mother””

  • Agua Caliente

    May I add “the cat’s mother” to the list? As a boy I learned not to refer to my mother or other adult female as “she.” Such an utterance would be met disapprovingly with, “Who is SHE? The cat’s mother?” (In the case of our rescue cat, Miss Birdie, the cat’s mother is a feline of unknown name and origin.) I’m still careful about my “she”s. A couple of cable TV installers, recently were at my house. One of them, in the course of conversation, described something his wife had done by stating “she [did whatever it was]” with no mention that it was his wife being referred to. That had to be gleaned from the context. Kind of jumped out at me, aurally.

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