Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
From the mouths of babes flows the entire universe. Literally, it turns out.
Basic human anatomy being more or less identical around the world, infants’ earliest adventures in enunciation bear striking similarities from one population to the next and throughout time. As newborns experiment with their vocal apparatus, one of the first sounds they learn to make — apart from straight-up screaming — is “muh.”
Perhaps because all parents believe their children are geniuses, or maybe just because it was convenient, those first sounds weren’t dismissed as mere gibberish but led to the word that identifies the nearest adult human to those first mutterings: mama.
It’s no accident that in the vast majority of languages spoken on this planet, the word for mother starts with an m sound. It’s not always mama, of course. As Roy Blount Jr. puts it in his book Alphabet Juice, “To sound like a grown-up, we refine mama into mother; the Romans made it mater.”
Those Romans were speaking Latin, and their mater not only became the source for the English mother but gave rise to another word in Latin: materia “substance from which something is made.” In English, materia developed into the more obvious material as well as the word matter, the substance of which any physical object is formed.
Matter, the broad-reaching word to describe the substance of the entire universe, grew from the word to describe the women who gave us life, which in turn grew from baby’s first murmurings. That says something both revealing and poetic about humankind.
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