Mother of All Meanings

Friday, November 19, 2010

Liza Bakewell, linguistic anthropologist at Brown University and the author of Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, explores the influence of language on Mexican culture through the lens of the Spanish word for "mother."

Got a favorite "madre" phrase or any other mom-language story? Let us know! (And...keep it clean)


Liza Bakewell

Comments [17]

Liza Bakewell from Maine

I have just seen these, but, as the author interviewed, I'd like to say that: (1) I do have a gringa accent, as I learned Spanish as an adult and can't get rid myself of my origins if I tried. I don't laugh at any of my Spanish-speaking friends who speak English, however poorly, for their accents or their vocabulary. I actually even like it. We manage to understand each other either way. (2) Anyone can write a book, but few do. (3) An outside perspective is always different and can only be achieved by those on the outside. I always listen to my Mexican friends when they describe the US. I figure they see things I don't, and it can be pretty interesting if their objective is not arrogance but rather mutual understanding and truth. (4) Finally, a book is one perspective, but no author ever thinks it is the only perspective. At least, not this author. Thanks for responding. Liza

Jan. 04 2011 12:37 PM
a g from n j

holy moly,i'm a little late to the fiesta,but here goes-first understand,that spanish is spoken by more countries, as a first language,than any other language. the idea, that you are going to figure out, in a seven second delay,what would, or could, be offensive, to the speakers of these diverse nationalities is pretty amusing. let alone, that the FCC, could even begin, to be able to make heads or tails of it all. the slang and double entendres,have such variety from country, to subculture, to generation, to, as she said social context. if you are bi-lingual[a stupid term,but there is no other] and you need to lie, or give bad news,you always go to spanish,because you can work your way around the harshness of a stressful moment much more efficiently. the flexibility of the language allows it. conversely, it also allows for greater misunderstanding.
on another note- there is an expression which,as far as i know,and i'm pretty certain of this,is unique to cuban spanish:
"esta de madre", with an accent over the a in esta[sorry, i don't know the keyboard well]
which means",this is a pretty crummy situation",this person is a "little off". and so on. it has, a mostly low grade negative connotation. as far as the writer wondering about the virgin mother veneration, and the using of madre in a perjorative manner. you could say part of it, is that mothers are more one in america, says "father bleeper"..also,what you put on a pedestal,sadly,is easy to throw in the gutter when convenient.

Nov. 19 2010 11:19 PM

Por Dios.... esta mujr esta perdida!!!
"Una madre bien padre" A mom who's cool, nice, easygoing, nothing to do with "father".
The word madre has so many meanings that you can really write a book about it but PLEASE NOT BY HER. We need a book that's going to be "de poca madre" that means great.
Madre... mom, "en la madre" I'm in trouble, "madrecita" little thing, "madre" nun, "esa madre" that thing, as you can see there's a lot to it. Please do your homework before you write a book.

Nov. 19 2010 03:35 PM
Ric Rose from ny

i mean come on america please wake up from this nightmare, can't you see that we are at war, absolutely everything and everyone willl be jacked for everything, these people you vote for are nothing but bedbugs of the world, they want to inherit earth and colonize with their sumarian mentality, they call it democracy, there agenda is racist, they practice apartheidsm they bang their heads against the wall looking for justification, they make fun of the working man, they spin everything backwards, they complicate, and finally they are reaching the end, one nation under god...this generation life support is the Cliché, but there are jinns out there that are the same as you, and know all the secrets of this so call god.

Nov. 19 2010 03:18 PM

This was an unfortunate segment touting a book by a woman who has no knowledge of Spanish, and a totally insulting experience.
As for the caller who came up with NO GRITA NO MAMA , she has no idea what she was saying - however often she may have visited the Caribbean. Her 'example' means nothing - the saying is: 'Niño que no llora no mama" which means ' A baby that doesn't cry doesn't suckle"
Please stick to a topic that is familiar to the speakers, there are plenty of bilingual and multilingual people around, but none were evident today. In some ways I found it offensive. Perhaps you ought to have more TRULY bilingual people on your staff.

Nov. 19 2010 12:19 PM
Alfonso from Queens

Dile a la huera que aprende español antes de enseñarnos, por Dios.

Nov. 19 2010 10:59 AM
Nina Mallory

"Hijo de mala madre." Which is a milder insult than "Hijo de puta".

Now in Spain it is common to say something "es de puta madre" if it is really great'

Nov. 19 2010 10:58 AM
Maribel from Westchester

The earlier caller was wrong, the expression is:
"el que no llora no mama"
That who does not cry does not eat (is not breatfed). Mamar is breatfeed (ergo mammal)

Nov. 19 2010 10:58 AM
john from office

The answer is that Mexico is a Catholic country so the Virgin Mary is sacred. So use of the Word is delicate.

I find it interesting that she called her stay in Mexico Field Work, as is she was in the wild, Bornio.

Nov. 19 2010 10:58 AM
Matthew from Astoria

No one has mentioned yet any expressions that riff on "Madre de Dios" - "Mother of God", i.e., the Virgin Mary.

Nov. 19 2010 10:56 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

P2a Madre.

Nov. 19 2010 10:56 AM
Ellen from at work in chelsea

She speaks the ruth, I lived in Mexico and noticed the same... my expression, you cannot say on the radio, but nonetheless,' yo cago en la puta madre que te pario', for absolute insult.. let your guest translate, and @1 - it's tacky to mock someone for their accent, I imagine she, like many who are multilingual, is doing the best she can with the pronounciation, her comprehension seems great.

Nov. 19 2010 10:55 AM
bernie from bklyn

she wrote a book about this? are you kidding me?
this is not complicated and and/or interesting. every culture has swear words and expressions that are focused on the word mother or even sister. because the female figure is revered and swearing about the mother is the worst thing you can say in al cultures. ever about mother jokes?
she's blabbering on about nothing, creating a thesis subject where none exists.
is this worth a segment brian?

Nov. 19 2010 10:55 AM
Ben from Manhattan

According to my bi-lingual wife, there are similar taboos and curses in Russian.

Nov. 19 2010 10:54 AM
Laura H. from Astoria

Her accent sucks. The gringa should learn to pronounce the word before she gets all misty about it.

Nov. 19 2010 10:50 AM
Mike from NYC

Madre no hay mas que una, y a ti e encontré en la calle.

From a flamenco song.

Nov. 19 2010 10:49 AM

Let's be fair here; "madre" isn't only the Spanish word for "mother." It's also the same in Italian. And as we all know, we don't F with an Italian mamma.

Nov. 19 2010 10:49 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.