The ‘mother of all’ hyperboles
On 13 April 2017, the US military dropped the largest nonnuclear bomb it’s ever deployed on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan: the GBU-43/B Massive Ordinance Air Blast. The bomb is better known, though, by its acronym, MOAB, which inspired the nickname the ‘Mother of All Bombs’.
The Mother of All Bombs has struck some as an odd name. What could a massive explosive have to do with our dear, beloved mums? As far back as Old English, the word mother has been used as a metaphor for something that gives rise to or is the source of something else, but the exaggerative expression mother of all — has a very different parentage.
Battles, old and new
Mother of all is a colloquial way to express something is the ‘greatest’ of its kind. After a boisterous stag party, a groom might face the mother of all hangovers the next morning. A ravenous foodie might feast on the mother of all hamburgers. The BBC described the US presidential debates as the mother of all job interviews. This April, protestors in Venezuela organized what they called the mother of all marches. In each case, the mother of all — designates something as the ‘most impressive’ example, usually for humorous or intensive effect.
The expression was popularized in 1990–91 when Saddam Hussein described a US–Iraq conflict during the Gulf War ‘umm al-maʿārik’, widely translated as ‘the mother of all battles’. Thanks to the political climate of the time and the colorfulness of the calque, the mother of all — construction spread – so much so that the American Dialect Society named it its 1991 Word of the Year.
Hussein’s dramatic turn of phrase, though, wasn’t an original one. The 636 Battle of al-Qādissiyah in 636, in which Arab forces bested the Sāsānian dynasty and went to conquer Persia, has historically been called umm al-maʿārik. Nor is umm al, literally ‘the mother of’ in Arabic, a construction exclusive to warfare: the city of Mecca, for instance, often goes by Umm al-Qurā, or ‘the mother of all settlements’. In the Arabic language, umm (’mother’) reads simply as ‘mighty’, ‘main’, or ‘major’, a fossil metaphor that got fresh life in its famed translation.
Respect your elders?
While Arabic no doubt helped boost the expression, the mother of all — does have some precedents in English. A few instances of the superlative mother of all appear in American English well before Hussein’s notorious 1990 speech. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the Sazerac Lying Club, an 1878 book by American author Fred Hart: ‘I seed the biggest trout I ever laid eyes on…The mother of all the trouts in Reese River, by thunder’. A 1936 New York Times article likened American actress Ilka Chase to ‘the mother of all vultures; playing the part as it was written, she leaves no bones unpicked’.
A similar expression may have also influenced the mother of all — construction: the father and mother of a —. Rudyard Kipling mentioned ‘the ‘father an’ mother av a beltin’ and ‘the father and mother of all weed-spuds’ in 1892. Yet older in the English language is mother’s counterpart, father of a —. A 1824 edition of the Boston-based Spirit of the English Magazines characterizes, if not stereotypes, the saying ‘the father of a beating’ as an Irish English colloquialism. As the record documents them in the 19th and early 20th century, the father of a — and the father and mother of a — are often used of physical fights and punishments, suggesting these constructions may have their roots in dreaded parental discipline.
An extended family
Also at play in the mother of all — is the idiom the granddaddy of them all. Dating back to at least 1880, the expression is, like the mother of all —, used of something considered ‘the greatest, oldest, or most respected’ of its kind. One professor, for example, once called the 1918 Spanish Flu ‘the grandaddy of them all’, claiming more lives than the infamous Black Death. And the Rose Bowl, a prestigious American college football championship match, boasts the nickname ‘The Granddaddy of Them All’, as it’s the oldest – and some might say most storied – of the US’s many college bowl games.
More recent – and be warned, vulgar – slang may have buoyed the mother of all —. While motherfucker emerges as an extremely offensive insult by the early 1900s, in the 1970s the swear’s vehemence, coupled with English slang’s own propensity for inverting pejorative terms as positive ones (cf. bad, ill, sick, wicked), took on a sense of a ‘large or outstanding example’, e.g., ‘He’s one talented motherfucker on the guitar’. Motherfucker has also been euphemistically shortened to mother and, more colloquially, mutha: ‘That car’s one mean-looking mother’.
The exact mother, as it were, of mother of all — isn’t clear. But whatever its history, it’s hard to deny that the mother of all — is the mother of all hyperboles.