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An extensive note preced-ing the definition explains that etymologists have long puzzled over this usage.Some have argued that the term is actually derived from Dutch modder, meaning mud or mire; the OED editor insists that there is no evidence for this view, however, and that mother sb.2 is really an application of sb.1 .Thinking about this project over the past five years or so has been a little like the experience of hearing a new word one morning and then finding it on everyone's lips for the rest of the day.It's hard to say exactly when I first perceived that the story of the mother without child was a pervasive, coherent, and meaningful narrative being reiterated in a variety of ways and places.In contrast to the insistence on the defining obviousness of the elevated position of the mother in senses two and three, a fourth and last sense indicates that mother can be "a term of address for an elderly woman of the lower class." The citations that support this sense reveal that from at least the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries in England, mother sometimes connoted the opposite of what it was normally supposed to mean: not high status, but a devaluation in two critical measures of a woman's worth—age and class.Bradley and his staff also found an even more devalued sense of the word mother, one so fundamentally at odds with their educated, middle-class, late-Victorian understanding that they classified it as another lexical item altogether: mother sb.2 , meaning "dregs, scum." According to the OED, this mother was associated with alchemy and used especially in the sixteenth century to refer to the scum of oils and subsequently to the dregs of fermenting liquids.Throwing up lexicographic hands at a debasement of the word mother that an English gentleman and scholar would be hard-pressed to comprehend, the editor concludes his lengthy discussion by noting that "the transition of sense is difficult to explain."Today we might be less surprised by this semantic phenomenon.In the wake of extensive late-twentieth-century feminist debates about the nature, function, and status of motherhood, it is no longer hard to offer reasons why the concept of mother, so idealized by the dominant middle-class rhetoric of the recent past, can also carry this barely concealed trace of derogation, disgust, and dirtiness.
But after my own mild brush with loss, the issue took on a new weight and urgency, and I began to discover a proliferation of stories that were different versions of the same fundamental narrative.I am also grateful to the many Haverford students who have enrolled in my courses in contemporary fiction over the years, and I want to acknowledge here their contributions.I appreciate the support of my friends in the Department of English; after hiring me as a medievalist in 1980, the department has generously tolerated and even encouraged my interest in teaching outside my original field of specialization.Like characters in Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule's novel about language and motherhood, I often find myself reaching for the dictionary and arguing about the implications that lie just beneath the surface of the lexicographer's formal efforts to capture meaning.As always, that monument of late-nineteenth-centuryindustry and scholarship, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), affords a complex and fascinating perspective on the historical semantics of mother in which the present crisis—both discursive and practical—is embedded.