I’ve always been fascinated by language. So, when Liza Bakewell asked me if I’d be interested in reading her new book, Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, of course I was excited.

About the Book:

It all started with a phrase: me vale madre. Translated literally, it means “it is worth a mother,” but its idiomatic meaning is along the lines of “it’s worthless” or “I don’t give a damn” (p. 12). In a culture where mothers, both human and divine, are so important, it seemed odd that such an expression should exist. Especially when the corresponding expression, ¡Qué padre! (literally, “what a father”) means “How utterly fabulous, marvelous, amazing, and awesome” (p. 12). Ms. Bakewell writes:

Madre is worthless and padre is marvelous?” I asked around.
“Yes,” friends and acquaintances responded, followed by, “Well, más o menos.” More or less.
And so began my journey with madre.
(p. 12)

And what a journey it is. Ms. Bakewell begins to collect madre expressions, each with its own particular negative meaning. Over 22 years and several continents, she pursues madre, examining every angle and trying to understand how this word for “mother” got into its current mess.

Her quest is hampered by the cultural taboo against women using madre expressions as well as the reluctance of Mexicans to discuss them, among other things. Nevertheless, Ms. Bakewell queries friends and acquaintances, learns about the art of the albur, and considers the word for mamá across languages. She digs into Mexico’s history for clues and examines the role of the Catholic Church in shaping Mexican Spanish. She ponders gender in language and its repercussions. And all the while her list of madre expressions grows ever longer and more perplexing.

My Thoughts:

Madre by Liza Bakewell (cover)Before I share my thoughts on Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, I want to dispel a concern some people may have that Madre might be inaccessible. On the contrary! Ms. Bakewell does a beautiful job of making her subject clear and easy to follow. Even if you’re new to the study of language, you’ll learn from and enjoy what Ms. Bakewell has to say. She is an academic, certainly, but she is also a gifted writer, and Madre is a pleasure to read. Her vivid descriptions of life in Mexico, her wordplay, and her light touch of humor combine to make Madre as engaging as it is interesting.

Ms. Bakewell’s journey with madre is, indeed, a fascinating one. Each time I thought she’d run out of angles from which to study the elusive noun, she’d introduce yet another factor that contributed in some way to madre’s contemporary meaning. I learned about Mexico’s history, culture, food, religion, and much more as I followed Ms. Bakewell’s narrative. I met her friends. Over dinners and at weddings, in Mexico and the U.S. and via email, the story of madre unfolded. I loved reading Ms. Bakewell’s descriptions of everyday scenes–the view from her balcony, a breathtaking church, sumptuous food–and seeing how madre fit around and within them.

It would be difficult to examine the word for “mother” without also examining the role of women, and Ms. Bakewell does so: as speakers of the language, as brides, as historical and Biblical figures, and, of course, as mothers. Masculine and feminine exist even in the Spanish language itself. One of my favorite examples of this from Madre is as follows: What happens when las 99 madres (99 mothers) are joined by el one padre (one padre)? The entire group, even though it is 99% female, becomes los 100 padres: 100 fathers. Where do those madres go? What impact, if any, does this grammatical rule have on a Spanish speaker’s conception of women? Why are the words for “life” and “death” feminine, while the words for “love,” “marriage,” “pregnancy,” and “birth” all masculine? These questions are only the tip of the iceberg.

There is so much more in Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun than I can possibly fit into this review. It’s a vast and tangled web, one which Liza Bakewell examines thoroughly and lovingly. If your curiosity is piqued by language, if you enjoy diving into other cultures, if you’re interested in gender studies, or if you like memoirs that teach while they transport, I would absolutely recommend Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell to you.

Stop back tomorrow for an interview with Liza Bakewell and a chance to win your own copy of Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun!

Those are my thoughts. Check out Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell on GoodReads or LibraryThing, or read other bloggers’ reviews:

Your Turn!

What interesting idioms does your language have (English included!)?

Join the Conversation


  1. When you first mentioned this book I was curious as to which dialect of Spanish Bakewell studied. There are differences between Spanish spoken in Spain and Spanish spoken in Mexico, and it sounds like from your review she focused solely on Mexico. Not criticizing this approach, I’m just curious as to if the same thing holds true in Spain or other Spanish speaking countries. Sounds like a really interesting read!

    1. After reading Madre, it sounds like this particular situation is specific to Mexican Spanish. Bakewell briefly touches on other dialects, and none seem to have such an issue with the word madre. Of course, they do have the gender-in-language piece; just not all the idioms.

  2. What a fascinating idea! It is rather amazing how many similar phrases exist in English; at least the negativity of mother and positivity of father – “motherf-er” versus “who’s your daddy?”. I’ll definitely be entering for this one!

    1. Good point, Trisha, I hadn’t thought about “who’s your daddy”! It’s amazing how we use these phrases without really thinking about them and how they (or versions of them) are there across languages.

  3. This book looks fascinating, especially as gender issues and language are two great interests of mine. I am curious to know if she discovered the point at which the female ‘madre’ began to connote the negative or if it’s just too far back in history to trace. This looks like a great read, and one I’ll have to add to my ever-growing TBR pile, perhaps closer to the top, esp if I manage to muster up enough luck to win a copy!

    1. I hope you enjoy it! Based on your description of your interests, it sounds like it’s right up your alley.

      1. I think so too! Thank you for the book – it was waiting on my doorstep when I got home, a lovely surprise on a Tuesday spring evening. I am really looking forward to reading it!

  4. Oh, this does sound like a wonderful book, and one that would really pique my interest. It is interesting that there are so many negative connotations associated with the word “mother” and I would be interested in finding out just how this came to be. It’s also a bonus that the material is accessible. Fabulous review, I can’t wait for your giveaway!

  5. Oh, this one’s definitely up my alley, particularly given that it involves both linguistic- and gender-based analysis. I’ll have to get my hands on this one.

  6. How intriguing! And how awful that mother equates with worthless and father with wonderful! Thank goodness for Liza Bakewell decided to explore madre and Spanish language. I took French in high school but always wished I’d taken Spanish at some point. I think language is fascinating and this book sounds very interesting. Great review, Erin!

  7. I love linguistics stuff! Does she only stick to Spanish? I ask because in Russian, the word for ‘swear words’ is the exact same as ‘mother,’ and it’s not a coincidence. 😉

    1. Pretty much just Spanish…another language would, I think, require another book! I don’t know much about Russian, but how interesting that those two words are the same.

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