Know Your Words

Mother’s Day, Mother, and More

Mother_and_child_an_image_of_a_sculpture_(4582636433)Yeah, it’s Mother’s Day. But do you why?

Julia Ward Howe does … or at least she did. Howe is dead now, but the holiday she created lives on. Here’s the story, according to the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins:

Shortly after she returned to Boston from Europe on a crusade for world peace in 1872, Julia Ward Howe (the American Poet who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) called for June 2 to be set aside for “Mother’s Peace Day” and, beginning with Boston, many cities and states adopted the tradition before President Woodrow Wilson authorized Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1915.

But wait, there’s more! The same source goes on to say that, in the United States, “the first Mother’s Day was celebrated in 1908, when Congress resolved that the second day of May be recognized as the national day to honor mothers.” It also notes that the original Mother’s Day — “what the British call ‘Mothering Sunday'” (which is the fourth Sunday in the season of Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday)” — has been around since the 19th century, and is a day wherein “children customarily given presents to their mothers.”

Maybe. Brewer’s Dictionary of Twentieth Century Phrase and Fable describes Mothering Sunday a little differently:

In the United Kingdom … Mother’s Day … has become synonymous with the Christian festival of Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, when servants apprentices, and other young workers living away from home were traditionally given a day’s holiday to visit their mothers.

And for the record, Brewer’s says the first U.S. Mother’s Day was celebrated in 1914, not 1908.

Mmmm, okay. Those are some different takes on Mothering Sunday. Whichever one is right, I think we can all agree that, as Brewer’s notes on the end of its entry on this most important day, “The commercial potential of Mother’s Day is exploited to the full on both sides of the Atlantic by florists and others.”

And What about Mother?

Okay, so that’s the skinny on Mother’s Day. But what do you know about the word mother? If you’re anything like me, not nearly as much as you think you do.

To begin, the Oxford English Dictionary offers (at least) 15 senses of the term. Most you’re familiar with. For example:

“A female parent; a woman who has given birth to a child,” or “To attribute the authorship of something to a woman, to ascribe the origin of something to something else, as in ‘necessity is the mother of invention.'”

However, some you might not be, such as: “A term of address for an elderly woman of the lower class. Also used as a prefix to a surname of such a person.”

The etymology is in the same vein. Mother, says  Eric Partridge’s Origins, comes from Latin mater, which isn’t exactly front-page news. However, Partridge doesn’t stop there. He goes on to trace mater back to its Indo-European base mat, which he contends is an extension of ma-, meaning “breast.” Hence the word mama. From here it’s something of an etymological hop, skip, and a jump to Demeter, the Greek goddess of the fruitful soil, who is also known as the “mother of the gods.”

This association of “mother” with the source of life and with nourishment can be found in mother’s symbology too. As noted in Hans Biederemann’s Dictionary of Symbolism:

The essential association is with ‘wisdom beyond knowledge,’ benevolence, sheltering, sustaining, the giving of life, fertility, growth, nourishment, the locus of magical transformation and rebirth; all that is secret and hidden.

Wisdom beyond knowledge? Perhaps this is what we mean when we speak of a mother’s intuition.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Postscript:

No post on the Butter Lamb would be complete without a foray into the dream world. Let’s buckle up.

According to the Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

The mother may symbolize the unconscious, intuitive part of yourself. This, however, can take a positive or negative form. She may appear as a kindly mother or aunt, or as a place such as a cave, a church, or garden; all these images represent the qualities of growth, nourishment, and fertility. In her negative form, a mother  may appear as a witch or a dragon, and represent dark, destructive tendencies that devour and destroy.

The Watkins Dream Dictionary offers a slightly different take:

The mother, in dreams is often represented by a queen, a nurse, a servant, the Virgin Mary, or some other impersonal symbol such as the earth, or a fountain. These symbols protect the dreamer from the odium society might conceivably hold them in were they to undermine the maternal force too overtly.

Finally, The Dreamer’s Dictionary (Robinson & Corbett) offers the following:

As a rule, [dreams of] … mothers symbolize love. You will have to figure out the meaning of your dream by correlating the action with your parental attitude and other elements of the dream, but as a general guide: if the parent you dreamed of is dead and he or she spoke to you, you can expect to hear important news.; otherwise, a dream of your mother signifies happiness in love or personal affairs.

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