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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.
Before this incident, I had thought about mothers whose children were taken away from them in a few of the novels and stories I regularly taught.
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.
Language is stretched to describe the bewildering fragmentation of a time in which one child may have a genetic mother, a gestational mother, and a custodial mother, each of whom is a different person.
Although it seems clear that new, unprecedented pressures have recently called into question the meaning of mother, this assumption nonetheless simplifies the history of the term.
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.