Susie Dent

Susie Dent

How the power of mothers runs through our language

Our columnist looks at how writers through the ages – and our language itself – have paid tribute to mothers

As Mother’s Day approaches, the fortunate among us might search for just the right tribute to give to our own mothers. If we’re luckier still, we might receive a beautiful message ourselves.

“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother”, wrote Abraham Lincoln, while poet Robert Browning declared: “Motherhood: All love begins and ends there”.

Of course, any collection of maternal thoughts usually includes a little wry humour. “When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’” quipped the US humourist Erma Bombeck, ‘”t’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.”

And mothers of teens or tweens will surely appreciate Nora Ephron’s advice: “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

My favourite quotation on a mother’s role is from mischievous Ambrose Bierce, who in The Devil’s Dictionary compiled the satirical antidote to a traditional lexicon. Beneath his entry for ‘sweater’ we read: “Garment worn by child when his mother is feeling chilly”.

Guilty as charged.

Linguistically, the power of mothers has driven much of our vocabulary. The word ‘metropolis’ comes from the Greek for ‘mother city’, the beating heart of a colony.

And while ‘matrimony’ involves a pairing between two people, a mother’s role is present here too through the Latin mater (cue dozens of mother-in-law jokes): a marriage once legalised motherhood, allowing women to produce legitimate heirs.


It’s comforting that a maternal thread runs silently through our language

The list marches on with ‘nun’ (from baby talk for a child’s nurse or mother), alma mater, the ‘fostering mother’ of a school or university, and the ‘marigold’, which along with the bloom’s golden hue honours Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Keanu Reeves fans might enjoy the fact that a ‘matrix’ also pays homage to our mothers, for the word originally meant ‘womb’.

Today, of course, it refers to a place or situation in which something is created and developed. The mother of all words, though, is ‘matter’, from which all things are made. That Latin mater echoes here, too.

There are plenty more words that carry the essence of motherhood, and myriad expressions – good, bad and funny – involving a mother’s role.

Many will remember Seventies’ series Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, whose title was a popular cry of exasperation over a person’s clumsy or idiotic behaviour.

And what about ‘playing mother’ when pouring the tea? I recently discovered that a 19th-century description of the same act was ‘bitching the pot’.

And for the mother who has everything, there are some obscure words that might serve you well on Mother’s Day (March 19).

A youthful synonym for ‘mother’, is a ‘genetrix’, while a ‘matricentric’ home is one in which the mother rules the roost. Many of us meanwhile ‘matrisate’, even if we don’t know it – essentially this is what we do when we end up like our mothers.

Whether or not we are mums ourselves and whether our own mothers are still here or now gone, it’s comforting to know that a maternal thread runs silently through our language.

And if you’re still looking or waiting for that perfect quote, perhaps consider this one, from writer Lynne Williams, which carries an undeniable truth: “A mother need only step into the shower to be instantly reassured she is indispensable to every member of her family”. Amen.

This article first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine today.

Susie Dent

Written by Susie Dent