Sunday, March 10, 2013

Mum's The Word: The Etymology of Mother's Day

Today is Mother's Day, or Mothering Sunday in the UK. The holiday falls on 12th May in the US. As we celebrate those who gave us life and went through the agony of birthing us followed by the agony of raising us, we look at the terminology surrounding one half of our parenting team, or our whole parenting team in some cases, our mothers.

Many countries across Europe celebrate the holiday in May, but we write in English and have grown up in English-speaking countries so our coverage of the holiday is going to be very Anglocentric.

The least you could do for your mother today
is give her some flowers or a card!
Of course the expression Mother's Day requires no explanation, what interests us more is the etymology of mother and all the other words we use to address her.

The word mother came from the Old English word modor which, of course, means female parent. It has its origins in Proto-Germanic languages as well as other related languages such as Anglo-Saxon and Frisian.

Many Indo-European languages feature a ma root when it comes to thinking up pet names for their mothers. Latin used mamma, just like Russian. French has maman and German prefers Muhme.

In English, pet names can vary from mum and mam in British English to the more commonly heard mom in American English. All have their roots in mamma, although mum is occasionally used as a variant of madam or ma'am as well.

The word maternal comes from the Old French maternel which came from the Vulgar Latin maternalis. The Latin for mother is mater, which was supposedly based on babies babbling the sound ma added with the suffix -ter which is used for kinship in Latin.

Semantically speaking, mother holds the connotation of life-giving with expressions such as mother nature and perhaps even mother tongue.

Don't forget that, at least for today, mum's the word.