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The popular idiomatic expression the mother of all (something) means:

  • an extreme example of something. Donny's car crash was the mother of all crashes. Hundreds will travel to Stonehenge, the mother of all places to celebrate the longest day of the year.

From: Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms

It appears that it was originated during a famous speech by the president of Iraq in 1991: Etymology:

  • Calque from Arabic; popularized in 1991 after its use by Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, in reference to the Gulf War as ام المعارك ‎(umm al-ma‘ārik, “mother of battles”).

From: Wiktionary

Ngram shows earlier usages but was the phrase commonly used before 1991, and if not, what alternative idiomatic expression, if any, was used to convey the same concept?

  • From the ngram it looks to me like it picked up steam in 1987, but then I start looking through the example and they seem to be mostly religious usages for the church being the mother of all Christians or Eve being mother of all the living. So maybe he did coin "mother of all X" as meaning "the biggest and baddest of all X." – developerwjk Oct 19 '16 at 14:38
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    The phrase is similar to granddaddy of (something) or granddaddy of them all (idioms.thefreedictionary.com/granddaddy+of+them+all). I wonder which familiar relation was used first in this kind of metaphor... – GoldenGremlin Oct 19 '16 at 15:53
  • Online Etymology Dictionary agrees it's down to Saddam. etymonline.com/index.php?term=mother – MetaEd Oct 19 '16 at 16:44
  • It just hit me that perhaps "mother of all" used this way is derivative of the term "motherload" – developerwjk Oct 19 '16 at 18:59
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    "In the Middle East and Greece, the idiomatic expression “the mother of all ---” has been used to describe the biggest, most extreme or ultimate examples of various things for more than two thousand years." –thisdayinquotes.com – Mazura Oct 19 '16 at 19:40
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It's safe to say that Saddam Hussein was not the mother of all "mother of all" expressions. (After all, it does say he popularized it, not invented it. However, it wasn't obscure before that, either.) Many examples well predate his time:

Ancient Critical Essays Upon English Poets and Poësy, 1811:

The first founder of all good affections is honest loue, as the mother of all the vicious is hatred.

A commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, 1807:

For pride (as Augustine truly saith) is the mother of all heresies

The Elements of a Polite Education, 1800:

It is a saying, that idleness is the mother of all vice.

The expression also exists in other languages.

Latin: Sibyllina oracula ex vete ribus codicibus emendanta, 1689 (emphasis mine):

Chariras etiam eft mater omnium virtutum

It seems to date back even further than that, possibly before English or Latin. Apparently, Aristotle said (translation, obviously):

Courage is the mother of all virtues because without it, you cannot consistently perform the others.

(I'm not sure when he said it, but it was certainly before his death in 322 BC.)

There's also this phrase:

مصر أم الدنيا
(Egypt is the mother of the world)

I don't have an exact date, but it's definitely old:


Source: From Pharaoh’s Lips: Ancient Egyptian Language in The Arabic of Today


We can credit Saddam Hussein for turning the expression into a snowclone.

A Chicago Tribune article published in the wake of the quote illustrates this well:

What Hussein Gave Us Was The Mother Of All Cliches

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    Most of your examples use the phrase "mother of all X" to mean the causal origin of X (e.g., "idleness is the mother of all vice") or the most important X (e.g., "courage is the mother of all virtues"). But the question is about the use of the phrase to mean "an extreme example of an X". – GoldenGremlin Oct 19 '16 at 16:42
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    To add: A is the mother of all Bs means A is the cause of B. The Arabic idiom is structured A is the mother of all As, meaning that this particular A is much more intense that all the other As. – michael.hor257k Oct 19 '16 at 16:45
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    I believe the examples you post above use "mother of all" to mean "first of," whereas I believe the Hussein quote uses "mother of all" to mean the "largest of." The phrase "mother of all ___" as used today (e.g., mother of all bombs) often refers to the latter usage. – user83454 Apr 24 '17 at 1:07
  • 1. that idleness is the mother of all vice does not mean the same as "the mother of all vices" (note the plural form). 2. Courage is the mother of all virtues because without it, you cannot consistently perform the others. Does not mean that "courage" is the most extreme example of all the virtues, it means that it begets other virtues, such as "loyalty", and "self-sacrifice" etc. Likewise 3. the mother of all the vicious is hatred, it is "hatred" which spawns all forms of vicious. None of the examples you cited are mentioned by the OED because their meaning is quite different. – Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '18 at 10:17
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The English translation of Saddam Hussein's phrase, cited by the Independent on January 19 1991, is as follows

“The great, the jewel and the mother of battles has begun”

The OED (not behind a paywall) says

mother of all —— n.[ \in quot. 1990 after Arabic umm al-maʿārik mother of battles] something that is outstanding or exemplary (in magnitude, importance, etc.); anything that is definitive in character, or that is the epitome of its kind; frequently humorous.
Popularized as a catchphrase by Saddam Hussein (b. Saddam bin Hussein at-Takriti 1937), President of Iraq from 1979, with reference to the Gulf War (see quot. 1990). Perhaps reinforced in later use by the euphemistic use of mother to mean ‘motherfucker’ (see sense 7 and motherfucker n. 2b), hence the occasionally occurrence of the form mutha in the phrase.

Despite what the Ngram chart below shows, the saying was unknown in English before 1990.

If we check the results between 1984 and 1990, Google Books claim that “mother of battles” first appeared in 1990 but this is most probably due to an OCR error; the foreshadowing book, Battlefield of the Future, was actually first printed in 1995.

We can, however, be confident in stating the phrase “mother of all battles” has always been the more popular, and that it reached a peak during 1994/95. Since the late 1990s, both variants have maintained a steady trend.

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From Oxford Dictionaries, we further learn…

Hussein’s dramatic turn of phrase, [‘umm al-maʿārik’ =‘the mother of all battles’] though, wasn’t an original one.

The Battle of al-Qādissiyah in 636, in which Arab forces bested the Sāsānian dynasty and went to conquer Persia, has historically been called umm al-maʿārik.

Nor is umm al, literally ‘the mother of’ in Arabic, a construction exclusive to warfare: the city of Mecca, for instance, often goes by Umm al-Qurā, or ‘the mother of all settlements’.

In the Arabic language, umm (’mother’) reads simply as ‘mighty’, ‘main’, or ‘major’, a fossil metaphor that got fresh life in its famed translation.

When Saddam Hussein used the Arab expression ‘umm al-maʿārik’ he was evoking the historic victory of the Arab Muslim army over the Sassanid Persian army in 636. The conquest of Persia was fought in the name of Islam and led to the conquest of Iraq, which was under Sasanian rule at that time. The successive fall of the Sasanian empire (224 to 651 AD) also led to the decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran (Persia).

Thus the expression ‘umm al-maʿārik’ was already familiar with the Iraqis, Saddam Hussein had not coined the phrase, he had had only brought it to the attention of the mass media in the Western world.

Furthermore, there are several usages of mother of all– in the Quran, said to be written between 609 and 632

  • Drinking alcohol is a major sin, for wine is the mother of all evils. It clouds the mind, wastes money, causes headaches, tastes foul, and is an abomination of the Shaytaan’s [Satan’s] handiwork.

  • Alcohol is the mother of all evils, the greatest of major sins.

  • Avoid Khamr for it is the mother of all evils.
  • Ummil kitaabi (mother of all books)
  • Umm al-Qura (mother of all cities)

Therefore, in the Muslim world, the expression mother of all– refers to something that is the most extreme example, the epitome of its kind.

While Arabic no doubt helped boost the expression, the mother of all — does have some precedents in English. A few instances of the superlative mother of all appear in American English well before Hussein’s notorious 1990 speech.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary cites the Sazerac Lying Club, an 1878 book by American author Fred Hart: ‘I seed the biggest trout I ever laid eyes on…The mother of all the trouts in Reese River, by thunder’.
  • A 1936 New York Times article likened American actress Ilka Chase to ‘the mother of all vultures; playing the part as it was written, she leaves no bones unpicked’.

  • A similar expression may have also influenced the mother of all — construction: the father and mother of a —. Rudyard Kipling mentioned ‘the ‘father an’ mother av a beltin’ and ‘the father and mother of all weed-spuds’ in 1892.

  • Yet older in the English language is mother’s counterpart, father of a —. A 1824 edition of the Boston-based Spirit of the English Magazines characterizes, if not stereotypes, the saying ‘the father of a beating’ as an Irish English colloquialism.

Oxford Dictionaries

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The Parliament of the United Kingdom, consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, has long been known as The Mother of Parliaments. However, on at least one occasion (post-Saddam) an elected representative, speaking in the House of Commons, has referred to it (in good humour) as "The Mother of all Parliaments".

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    A reference and/or a link as to when and by whom would be nice. – Mari-Lou A Apr 14 '17 at 9:48
  • It is usually the proper noun "Westminster" that is used in this saying, not the word Parliament. – Peter Point Aug 28 '18 at 6:01

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