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I recently came across the idiom "Be mother" in a crossword. It is supposed to mean 'to pour tea'. I was surprised by the meaning, and want to ask if there is any etymology or history behind this curious idiom. Is it informal/facetious/slang?

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be mother. This is the second hit when Googling for '"be mother" etymology'. Does this answer your question? –  Matt Эллен Mar 16 '12 at 9:48
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@MattЭллен: That's a rather curious etymology. Does a 'be father' exist representing father's role in the household? I would like to have some information on when the phrase came into use, etc. –  Bravo Mar 16 '12 at 10:15
    
I've never heard "be father". I have heard "be mother" used to mean "serve food", not just tea, but maybe this usage is non-standard. –  user16269 Mar 16 '12 at 10:44
    
@David Wallace, Shyam: Suppose the Thanksgiving turkey is on the table, but Pa couldn't be there because he's away on business bring home next week's bacon. I can imagine the dutiful eldest son saying "I'll be father" as he grabs the carving cutlery and sets about slicing off and serving everyone's portions. –  FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 15:37
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Wow, is it just me, or does this sound like a very sexist idiom? I'm usually the right-winger in the group who ridicules charges of sexism, but this sounds really demeaning to me, like the only value a woman has in the world is to serve tea. –  Jay Mar 16 '12 at 18:19
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5 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's normally heard as Shall I be mother? meaning 'Shall I pour the tea?' It's used because pouring the tea has traditionally been seen as a mother's role. I suspect it's now heard less than it once was for various social rather than linguistic reasons. It's not slang and it's not facetious, but because of the nature of tea-drinking it's likely to be heard in informal situations.

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In my experience, if it is used now it generally is facetious, but maybe I move in different circles from you, Barrie. –  Colin Fine Mar 16 '12 at 12:59
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@ColinFine@ Perhaps ironic rather than facetious. –  Barrie England Mar 16 '12 at 13:01
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I drink tea all day, almost wherever I am, but for the past couple of decades I don't see a teapot more than a few times a year. I used to think "Yuck!" when anyone tried to put a teabag in a cup, but that's just how it is these days. On the odd occasions where there is a teapot being used, I think most people I know would say "Shall I be mother?" non-facetiously, rather than "Shall I pour the tea?", which sounds a bit formal to me. –  FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 16:57
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It is also a saying that stems from the superstition that a female guest should never pour the tea in another woman's household - for then she would fall pregnant.

So should a woman offer to pour the tea in another woman's household ("I'll be mother"), she desires to become a mother. Or it may also be used as tongue-in-cheek by those who are not in the least superstitious.

From author and folk historian Dr. Alec Gill:

Tea-drinking and fertility were intermingled. Indeed, the tea-pouring clich‚ "I'll be Mother" stems directly from primitive superstition. The consequences of two people pouring from the same pot could be dire.

During the 1930s, if a man and woman took turns in pouring, a child would be born to them. A female visitor must not pour tea in another woman's house - otherwise, she would fall pregnant. This evolved to having twins and - even worse at the superstitious level - ginger-headed twins.

Thus, an early form of birth-control was to let only one person do all the pouring in company!

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Do you have reference to substantiate this? As far as I'm aware you've just made this up. –  Matt Эллен Jun 26 '12 at 8:19
    
@Matt: I've edited in a reference. –  Hugo Jun 26 '12 at 8:24
    
@Hugo, thanks :). I was hoping that KBrahms would do the leg work and edit their answer accordingly. –  Matt Эллен Jun 26 '12 at 8:25
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Traditionally the mother in a family pours the tea. So "being mother" means "pouring tea".

It's as simple as that.

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I don't think it's just that mothers pour the tea. Mothers have historically been seen, obviously, as caregivers, and nothing spells nurturance to a Brit like tea. So, more idiomatically, I think it refers to, more generally, "let me take care of you."

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Thank you for your contribution, but the question is actually about why does the idiom "Be mother" mean "to pour tea". So, while not disputing what you say, your answer does not directly address the question. –  TrevorD Jul 27 '13 at 22:12
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I don't think the phrase "be mother" specifically means to pour tea. It's used, in my experience, when one adult is serving something to another adult and that person could easily serve themselves. Because a child isn't usually allowed to serve him or herself at the table, their mother does it for them. So if someone is serving something to another person, they are "being mother".

It's not just about tea.

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