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!



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.

Know Your Words · The Art of the Dictionary

The Bedeviling Symbol of the Octopus

0130181842Earlier today, while thumbing through some books in search of blogspiration, I found myself lazily flipping  the pages of The Dictionary of Symbolism, where I came across an intriguing entry for octopus.

After teasing us with a somewhat poetic description of the beast–“Its arms, depicted as rolled up in spirals, form an impressive symmetry around the body with its two eyes, the whole suggesting a head surrounded by snake-like hair”–goes on to suggest it might have been the inspiration for the mythical figures of Medusa and the Scylla, “the mythical sea monster who menaced Odysseus and his crew.” Then it goes on to talk about s cuttlefish, and how the ink emitted by both these animals was deemed a symbol of their ties to “mysterious and otherworldly forces.”

0130182215aAnd what “mysterious and otherworldly” forces might those be? It didn’t care to elaborate, but the implication was that, like the ink, they were dark.

Fortunately, there are other symbol references that are more willing to lay it on the line. Among them are the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols, which declares “Even in earliest times, [the octopus] became a symbol of the spirit of the devil and of hell in general because of its eight tentacles.”

Okay, that’s dark, but what the hell does possessing eight tentacles have to do with the devil or hell? (Get it, possessing?)

Sadly, Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols doesn’t offer much more.

[The octopus] … has the same significance as the dragon-whale myth. As a decorative motif…. It is related to the spider’s web and the spiral, both being symbolic of the mystic Center and of the unfolding of creation. It also has been credited with a merely existential significance.

Clearly, Cirlot cares more about dragons than octopi, because one must read that entry to find out just what that significance is. (You’d think you could read the entry for whale as well, and I did, but that one is rather thin too.) I took the time to read the entry for dragon, and I was glad to find it wasn’t wasted.

The dragon … stands for ‘things animal’ par excellence, and here we have a first glimpse of its symbolic meaning, related to the Sumerian concept of the animal as ‘adversary,’ a concept which later came to be attached to the devil.

Now we’re getting somewhere! With it’s odd, alien form and serpent-like appendages for arms, no wonder the octopus was the inspiration for terrifying creatures like Medusa and sea monsters who emerge from the inky deep to imprison us or drag us off into the dark realm they call home. It’s the stuff of dreams, or better yet nightmares!

As it turns out, it is the stuff of dreams and nightmares (but mostly the latter). This is why, in addition to symbol references, it’s worthwhile to have a few dream dictionaries hanging around the shelves of your library, for the meaning of the images, icons, and symbols conjured by our minds at night often make themselves known in our dreams.

For example, consider the following excerpt from the octopus entry in The Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

In their positive form, [octopuses] reflect emotional depth and the ability to direct your energy in many directions without losing your center…. [They] may also be associated with a person or situation that has many ways of holding or affecting you, such as a mother or a debt.

0130181905The Watkins Dream Dictionary of Dreams offers a similar, albeit slightly more sinister interpretation of the dreamed octopus. According to this text, octopi in dreams are noteworthy because:

For a two-handed human, the idea of having eight legs, each with a different function, might suggest an inability to focus on one thing at a time, or a tendency to disperse one’s essential energies in unfruitful activities. Octopi may also be threatening, and indicative of emotional minefields—lunging unexpectedly at a human being from the depths of the ocean.

Crisp’s Dream Dictionary, after echoing the previous sentiments about mothers (what’s that about?), simply notes that an octopus in a dream can “symbolize any unconscious fear” capable of “dragging us into its realm of irrational terror.”

Sounds rather adversarial to me.

PS.) And what do octopuses have to do with hockey? Find out here!


Note: This is the second version of this post. There was a GLARING error in the first–I completely misread a passage in one of the texts quoted here and built my post around that misunderstanding. Luckily, I was able to fix it but, boy oh boy is my face red. I’d like to chalk it up to staying up late or drinking too much coffee, but the sad truth is that I’m just a moron sometimes. My apologies.