Last week, the United States dropped its MOAB, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast, on a network of tunnels in Afghanistan, killing approximately 94 people who have been reported thus far as ISIS militants. Of course, Massive Ordnance Air Blast is not how the press has been referring to this largest nonnuclear device; it (or she) is referred to as the Mother of All Bombs — which may, in fact, have been the original moniker, with the more official-sounding term a back-formation from this Mom Bomb idea.
But why, many have been asking, is it the mother of bombs? Mothers give life. Mothers don’t fight wars. So go the feminist outcries against what feels like yet another gesture of casual misogyny from the present administration. At the same time, as Dennis Baron has observed on his Web of Language blog, misogyny may be the least offensive thing about the use of a weapon whose 94 victims may well be replaced within the hour by more angry jihadists.
The phrase mother of all acquired its status as the biggest and baddest only recently, with Saddam Hussein’s 1991 reference to the coming battle with U.S. forces as the “mother of all battles.” The explosion (so to speak) of mother of all phrases that followed led the American Dialect Society to pronounce it the 1991 Word of the Year. Since then, it’s been used both to brag and to condemn: the mother of all car crashes, the mother of all burgers. But mother of has a deeper history, going back to references to Eve or to Nyx, the daughter of Chaos. In its generative sense, the phrase has continued through the centuries with mother as the original of whatever was being observed or touted: the human voice was the mother of all instruments, the Church of Rome was the mother of all churches, ecclesiastical Slavonic was the mother of all Slavic languages. Until the late 19th century, though, the progenitive father of all eclipsed mother of all, being used about four times as often in books during the 1830s, according to Google’s Ngram viewer. Only in the 1980s did mother of all gain in ascendancy, used in references to dance as the mother of all language, the earth as the mother of all creation, and history as the mother of all the humanities, while father of all basically remained a reference to the patriarchal Christian god. (That may soon change, as the Russians start preparing the “father of all bombs,” but I’ll believe it when I see it, which I hope not to.)
Along with the age-old idea of an original giving birth to all the (less pure) versions that followed, and a late-20th-century tendency to personify that original as female, we have a darker history of mothers and big bad things. There’s Lilith, whose myth runs alongside Eve’s but figures the original female as demonic; there’s Grendel’s mother in Beowulf; there’s Sycorax, the mother of Caliban in The Tempest. The destruction caused by the spawn of these women is generally laid at their feet; as the ones responsible for incubating and nurturing these awful progeny, they are held more responsible, often, than the monsters who do the actual destroying. In Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the “rough beast” set to take advantage of our confused chaos invokes a monster-mother, as he “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” In the HBO series Game of Thrones, the horrifying thing about the determined Daenarys Targaryen is not that she finds a trio of dragon eggs but that she refers to what hatches from them as her children.
It is true, as Dennis Baron and others have observed, that weapons of mass destruction have had male monikers: “Little Boy” dropped on Hiroshima, “Fat Man” dropped on Nagasaki. But those were ironic, even whimsical terms used with a smile by the military who deployed the weapons. It was the Allies who referred to the German howitzer pummeling Paris as “Big Bertha.” Now, by dubbing this massive display of destructive power the Mother of All Bombs, we shed any pretense of cuteness. Reports thus far have been of “no civilian casualties,” and at the same time we learn that “an elderly man who lives close to the bombing site in Achin’s Momand Dara area said the blast was so piercingly loud that his infant granddaughter was experiencing hearing loss.” Thus have the men in charge unleashed her, this primal destructive force, Shakespeare’s “foul witch” of “sorceries terrible,” filled with “unmitigable rage,” whose “litter” can only be “a freckled whelp, hag-born.”
What bothers me about this joining of ancient misogynies and modern mass destruction, though, is not that we are, once again, blaming the mother. It’s that we shout it from the rooftops: We are proud of her.
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