U.S. forces dropped a 22,000-pound bomb on Islamic State forces in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday. When discussing the strike, Pentagon officials referred to the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast weapon, or MOAB, by its nickname, “the mother of all bombs.”
But some on social media were offended by the gendered nature of the phrase.
Other Twitter users mocked these viewpoints.
“Calling it ‘The Mother of All Bombs’ is flattering; not sexist. Yes. Liberals are really complaining about that,” one user sarcastically tweeted.
“Have Democrats issued a statement about the use of the word Mother in ‘Mother Of All Bombs’ being sexist yet?” tweeted another.
The “mother of all” part of the bomb’s nickname has become common to describe the biggest or best of something.
After all, the GBU-43 is “the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat,” The Washington Post reported.
But where, exactly, did that phrase originate? It is a relatively recent linguistic phenomenon. Despite this newness, the expression has invaded American dialect, being employed in wildly varying contexts.
When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation of the city while Hurricane Gustav approached, for example, he called it “the mother of all storms.” Harry’s Bar and Burger in Providence, R.I., meanwhile, offers a thick sandwich called “M.O.A.B. (Mother of All Burgers).”
Given how ubiquitous the expression has become, its origin might seem ironic.
Saddam Hussein birthed it into the international consciousness in January 1991 when, on Baghdad radio, he referred to coming ground fight between Iraq and the U.S. at the end of the Gulf War as the “mother of all battles.” As Business Insider noted, he may have derived the phrase from the Koran, which refers to the holy city of Mecca as “Umm al-Qura” — the “mother of all settlements.”
During the same broadcast, he called President George H.W. Bush a “hypocritical criminal” and referenced “the satanic intentions of the White House,” The Post reported at the time.
Despite these roots — and despite the fact that the “mother of all battles” lasted less than 100 hours, as Stars and Stripes noted — Americans quickly adopted the phrase.
Newspapers seized on the idiom. A smattering of examples pulled from headlines in the 1990s: The “mother of all dips,” “mother of all rhymes,” “mother of all job benefits,” and the particularly tongue-twisty “mother of all motherboards.”
The spike in the phrase’s use in journalism was staggering. A search for the phrase “mother of all” using a Washington Post internal archive tool that collects various newspaper articles from 1877 to present day turned up 40 recorded instances of the term in the 1970s, and 69 in the 1980s.
It found 1,331 articles employing the expressing in the 1990s.
In reaction to the idiom’s sudden pervasiveness, the American Dialect Society deemed “mother of all” the 1991 word of the year, defining it as “greatest, most impressive.”
The phrase’s sudden shift in meaning became even starker after a stroll through the archives of The Washington Post and the New York Times.
Beginning around the 1900s, it seems, the phrase was generally used to reference the genesis of something. One New York Times article from 1903, for example, called Indian basketry “the mother of all loom and bead work,” meaning the practice spawned loom and bead work. In 1927, the newspaper referred to the human voice as the “mother of all music,” since it existed before instruments.
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