Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Two evil homonyms: “mother” and “haggard”

Not long ago, I wrote two short essays about homonyms (see the posts for 21 July and 11 August 2021). The comments were few but friendly, and I thought that a sequel to those essays might not be out of place.


One of the most puzzling English words is mother. It refers not only to the female parent but also to some substances. Perhaps the best-known terms related to the second sense are mother of pearl and mother of vinegar. Mother2 surfaced in English only in the sixteenth century and meant “scum, dregs, lees.” Obviously, we are not dealing with a spontaneous development of one of the oldest words in the language (mother “female parent” has cognates all over the Indo-European world). And indeed, its source is no secret: either Dutch or Low (= northern) German, but this reference does not explain the origin of Dutch moe(d)er (now moer) and German Mutter. Nor is this usage restricted to Germanic, because Spanish and Italian also have madreperla, while German Perlmutter may be known to some from the family name Per(e)lmuter.

Obviously, English will shed no light on the origin of this mother, and we should look at the continental forms. German Essigmutter “mother of vinegar” (Essig “vinegar”) and Moder ~ Modder “a decomposing corpse; swamp” are also late words. The beginning of the story must be in some northern German or Dutch dialects, and the search takes us away from the kin term, because in several Indo-European languages the root m-d/t is easy to find, and the words with it denote “urine, excrements,” and the like. Most probably, English mud belongs here too, but this fourteenth-century noun reveals no secrets. It only returns us to the same Low German and Dutch forms: mud is another version of moder, and after finding it, we are none the wiser.

Clear as mud. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

When a Germanic word begins with the consonant m, one should always expect a double with sm– (that is, with the indispensable s-mobile), and of course, we find smut ~ smudge. This is another late word. However, smite is old, and it first meant “to smear.” I’ll refrain from stepping too deep into this morass (smut, smear, smolder, and the rest), but, wherever we turn, we find dirt, and it anyone’s guess whether smother also belongs here. If mother2 is a member of this filthy group, it has nothing to do with mother “female parent,” though the idea of equating “sediment,” that is, the bottommost layer of the substance with someone giving birth is tempting.

Such was the suggestion of the OED; it referred to the vocabulary of alchemy. In the formulation of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the notion may have been that the substance was a portion of the mother, or original crude substance which remained mixed at first with the refined product. In Skeat’s formulation: “…as the dregs seem to be bred in the liquid,” the sense probably being affected by mud and muddle. (He said almost the same in the first edition of his dictionary.) But since mud is part of the same group, we cannot decide which of its elements affected which. Today, few researchers are ready to accept Skeat’s hypothesis. Indeed, more probably we are dealing with two unrelated words, that is, homonyms, but their interaction need not be excluded.


One would not call this hawk haggard. (Image by Radovan Zierik.)

Haggard is the name of an untamed hawk (thus, a noun) and an adjective meaning “lean, meager, gaunt, emaciated.” The question is the same as above: are we dealing with two meanings of the same old word or with two unrelated words? No records of English haggard antedate the sixteenth century, and there seems to be a consensus that, figuratively speaking, haggard1 and haggard2 are branches of the same tree, but I am aware of a difficulty never mentioned in our dictionaries (see below!). Haggard, applied to an untamed, wild hawk, appeared in English texts in the sixteenth century, and the adjective (“gaunt”) a hundred or so years later, and I think the relative chronology is important. The name of a wild hawk goes back to Old French. Its etymology is of little importance in the present discussion, and I’ll mention the existing hypotheses without discussion. Nearly all authorities derive the French word from Germanic: perhaps from English hawk (Old English hafoc, an old and universally rejected hypothesis) or from the Germanic root hag-, as in English hedge, haw, or Middle English hagger “wild; ugly.” The latest conjecture enjoys almost universal acceptance; if it is correct, French speakers are believed to have borrowed the word from English aristocrats. Falconry was indeed an aristocratic occupation.

In all those hypotheses, the Germanic origin of the French word remains uncontested. Yet French hagart (sic) “violent; unsociable” occurred as early as 1390 and the sense “uncertain; inconstant, changeable” even before that, both without reference to the falcon. Therefore, an attempt has been made to trace the French adjective to a Romance root, namely, Latin aversus “(literally) turned away; hostile; backwards” (a rather strained reconstruction). Though the distant origin of the French adjective is of no consequence for determining whether English haggard1 and haggard2 are one word or two, some background information is always useful. Among English etymologists the best specialist in things Romance was Ernest Weekley, who wrote in his dictionary: “Apparently from Old High German hag, hedge ‘haw’, whence French haie. As adjective, first applied to the eyes, later sense of gaunt, scraggy, due to the association with hag ‘witch’.” A bold interpretation of facts! Yet he too believed that the noun haggard and the adjective haggard go back to the same etymon, and there’s the rub.

You wouldn’t call this haggard man hawkish. (Image by Neil Moralee.)

German hager “gaunt” (another seventeenth-century word) means almost the same as English haggard, but in discussing it, no German dictionary mentions the English adjective, hawks, or French aristocrats. Nor does hager appear in English dictionaries featuring haggard. Hager, we read, is of “obscure origin”; and then possible cognates in Lithuanian and other remote languages are listed. The influence of mager “lean, skinny” is sometimes admitted as a distant possibility. Quite naturally, I wonder: “Does German hager have anything to do with the English adjective haggard”? Is haggard a “Frenchified” variant (the suffix –ard is French) of a Germanic word, even though it is of “obscure origin”? Is the association with the bird name secondary, a later product of folk etymology?

Most likely, we will never have an answer to this question, but I would not be surprised if the dictionaries of the future listed mother1 and mother2, along with haggard1 and haggard2, as unrelated words or if they at least mentioned this approach as worthy of discussion.

Feature image: Fertility goddess, Chandraketugarh, India, 2nd-1st century BC, terracotta – Ethnological Museum, Berlin. (CC0 1.0)

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    I think some of your and the OED’s examples of mother2 in phrases are in fact from mother1. In particular, “mother of pearl” is not the dregs of pearl, but the layer of nacre out of which the pearl is figuratively born. “Mother of vinegar” is on the borderline: it is the dregs from vinegar-making, but then when added to fresh ingredients creates more vinegar from them.

    Better examples of mother2 would be “mother of oil/grapes”, the dregs from an oil/grape pressing, and “mother liquor”, the remaining solvent after a solute has been removed by crystallization.

  2. John Cowan

    P.S. Perhaps indeed “mother of vinegar” (in some language) is the point at which mother1 in its figurative sense crosses over into mother2.

  3. Clancette

    Mother. Is it perhaps possible that the word ‘mother’ , broadly meaning ‘mud’, referential to the origins of
    humankind? ‘Mother’ of vinegar is, after all, the muddy substance, without which vinegar would not exist?

  4. Maggie Catambay

    During COVID-19 I heard “mother” as another word for sourdough starter as people were taking up baking bread during our lockdown. I am guessing it is because keeping it going takes a lot of mothering.

    Your discussions on homonyms are very interesting!

  5. Bechir Lamine

    With regard to mother. When you mentioned alchemy and Spanish, I thought of two Arabic words that could relate to mother of pearl: 1) durr is one of two words meaning pearl; 2) madar means mud, clay, loam. Don’t you think there coud be a link?

Comments are closed.