May 10, 2009 in Features

Americans love the phrase, even though its roots aren’t exactly wholesome

By The Spokesman-Review
 

What comes to mind when you think of the word “mother”? Loving devotion, maybe? Or perhaps nurturing and loyalty? And seeing as how this is Mother’s Day, you might also think of flowers and Hallmark cards.

In any case, you probably don’t picture the late Saddam Hussein. But when the Iraqi dictator promised “the mother of all battles” back at the time of the first Gulf War almost 20 years ago, he gave birth to a language assault far more unstoppable than his army.

The phrase “the mother of all …” has become deeply embedded in American culture. According to one 2008 Google estimate, the expression had been used 1.4 million times in written references. And you can add to that the countless spoken applications.

Usually employed to describe the ultimate version of something, this verbal template has been used in an astonishing variety of contexts.

For instance, in one publication or another, we have had the mother of all … vampires, sick days, snake bites, wedgies, miniskirts, pimples, staring contests, crime novels, stains, marmots, groin injuries, underwire bras, junkyards, haircuts, burritos, jiggle shows, bad toupees, butt kickings, graduation parties, cover letters, Jane Austen movies, hotel atriums, belly flops, drag queens and grizzly bears.

Language analysts have debated whether translators got Hussein’s original Arabic expression exactly right. And there has been discussion about precisely what he meant.

But one thing is clear. Americans love “the mother of all …”

Instead of simply asserting that something is the biggest, boldest or most bodacious embodiment of an act or concept, hauling out this phrase seems to give a declaration extra juice. At least that’s how it strikes some.

How else would you explain the fact that writers of various stripes have referred to the mother of all … unfunded mandates, particle accelerators, rural marketing schemes, heists, pretexts, oil spills, bells, trials, green jobs fact sheets, home theaters, media leaks, disasters, gaffes, storms, light tents, omens, dragons, scams, toddler books, enemies lists, robot-on-robot violence, Ice Ages, spreadsheets, water filters, nightmares, bungee jumps, stashes, mergers, junk science controversies, anti-MSM rants, chain letters, sermons, pageants, distortions, movie trailers and Greek hotels.

You can run, but you can’t hide. It’s everywhere.

Maybe some find an appealing edginess in the expression, even though it could be argued that it became a cliché long ago.

Whatever the explanation for its popularity, this stock phrase shows no signs of retreating. A targeted survey of recent Twitter exchanges shows the usage is pandemic.

But does the expression really have anything to do with mothers?

Perhaps, in the sense of being foundational or setting a standard by which all future occurrences will be measured. And maybe there’s something mother-like about giving life to a pumped-up definition of intensity or magnitude.

Or it could be that speakers just think it makes them sound like Jay Leno.

We all know Spokane is the birthplace of Father’s Day. The same claim cannot be made for Mother’s Day. But maybe Spokane can be involved in establishing a new Mother’s Day tradition.

Let’s call this the mother of all online games.

To play, all you need is Internet access and basic knowledge of how to use search engines such as Google. Simply challenge other players to identify words or phrases that will or will not be found at the end of “the mother of all …”

Here are just a few that you would find:

Mysteries, scandals, hatchet jobs, evils, sandwiches, tooth decay, cultural battles, hypocrites, antioxidants, bodice rippers, potlucks, bribes, meltdowns, fiestas, coalitions, drinking games, uproars, Mexican resorts, myths, quilts, Buddhas, meteor storms, dresses, tube amplifiers, smokescreens, ocean liners, top 10 lists, toolkits and T-shirts.

Feel free to make up your own rules about scoring.

A word of caution, though: Searching for instances of “the mother of all…” can be addicting.

To give you an example, one online-searching session might uncover “the mother of all …” happy hours, nasal New Jersey accents, man caves, thunderclaps, bad headlines, garage sales, baby bumps, morons, potatoes, nimrods, digestive upsets, battering rams, sins, buzz kills, menstrual cramps, pizzas, bad bosses, raccoons, hummingbirds, loud parties, wardrobe malfunctions, firings, pork dishes, catch phrases, Neil Young phases, wrong turns, bad hair days, Three Stooges slaps, Idaho dating sites, Spokane city guides, fixations, cures, jock rashes, skid marks, toilet clogs, bad dates, racist theories, nicknames, Elvis impersonator contests, understatements, dirty words, Albert Brooks films, bladder infections, exfoliating sessions, mullets, drinking songs, football treachery, wind gusts, stepmothers, Montana webcam lists, dog houses, scavenger hunts, gesticular insults, lashes in my eye, English motorcycles, waxing, bruises, obfuscations, meltdowns, headaches, water guns, zombie music videos, fungicides, anxiety attacks, sitcom stinkers, warning letters, “Star Trek” fans, curveballs, hangovers, bike racks, splinters, boyfriend blunders, sneezing fits, perfume buying sprees, pay cuts, awkward reunions, stumbling blocks, bellyaches, wedding cakes, Jewish delis, bridal showers, bad gifts, marital problems, to-do lists, happy endings, temper tantrums, orange juice drinks, monster trucks, buffet cities and sweet onions.

That’s a lot of moms. And there are so many, many more.

Those who are weary of this rhetorical device might be tempted to say, “Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to use keyboards.”

It would appear, however, that it’s too late.

Of course, readers of The Spokesman-Review should be used to seeing this expression by now. To name just a few, the S-R has referred to “the mother of all …” lilac bushes, chemical weapons, fixer-uppers, sizzlers, surgeries, sidewalk sales, bulk stores, crises, tax hikes, winters, stage mothers, identity thieves, flea markets, windstorms, re-fi booms and snakes.

When someone is saying “the mother of all sidewalk sales,” you know the expression is mainstream.

Saddam Hussein was wrong, to be sure. No military historian would rank that 1991 engagement to which he referred up there with the Battle of the Bulge, Shiloh or Agincourt. But his choice of words certainly took us by storm.

People have already recycled “the mother of all …” to describe bubbles, funk, Mondays, atheist bestsellers, beer blogging contests, composting articles, database normalization debates, bad acting performances, circumcision posts, ex-porn stars, cockfights, airline workplace disputes, forks, hallucinations, golden parachutes, fish, potholes, relaxing weekends, quagmires, protocols, vote frauds, enzymes, hot dogs, tax shelters, carrots, frauds, interventions, model rocket launches, vigils, analogies, bailouts, feuds, toxic cleanups, depressions and excuses.

In fact, someone has even used “the mother of all Mother’s Day stories.”

Paul Turner can be reached at (509) 459-5470 or pault@spokesman.com.


There is one comment on this story. Click here to view comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email