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I gather that the expression mother of all predates Saddam's famous mother of all battles pronouncement, especially in Arabic. It seems that most pre-Saddam examples refer to an original thing from which other things stem - mother as in parent. In modern English usage, mother of all normally denotes the biggest, baddest, most impressive, most awesome etc, perhaps with a nod to mother as a profane abbreviation.

What I was wondering was this: surely Saddam was using the mother of all expression in the traditional Arabic way? I think he meant to say something like this:

I do not seriously expect to defeat the forces ranged against me on this occasion. But be warned - it won't end here. This war will sow such division and resentment that the world will never be the same. This is the mother of all battles, the one that kicks off all subsequent battles - you ain't seen nothing yet.

He was right of course, but I think the modern English usage is based on a misunderstanding of Saddam. Perhaps that misunderstanding in part arises from the fact that Americans use mother as a profane abbreviation as noted above?

marked as duplicate by user240918, Mitch, Robusto, Skooba, tchrist Sep 8 '18 at 13:57

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  • "The mother of all battles" as in the "progenitor of all battles to come" It could also be interpreted that way but generally speaking, you're right, the expression "mother of all" usually signifies the worst (or the best) of its kind. – Mari-Lou A Aug 26 '18 at 9:00
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    The issue has nothing to do with Saddam per se. He just used a common expression in his own language. It's an issue about translation from Arabic into English. – Lambie Aug 26 '18 at 14:30
  • "Mother of all X" (in more or less this sense) has been an idiom in US English since I was a kid, long before anyone ever heard of Sadam Hussein. – Hot Licks Aug 26 '18 at 14:35
  • @user070221 The older question is asking if the expression was already in use before 1991. Here the OP is asking about its meaning, and believes the traditional meaning refers to being the "first" or being the progenitor of something. And that's not the case. I'm sure the now-deleted account user would have agreed, and upvoted my answer :) – Mari-Lou A Aug 26 '18 at 17:48
  • @user070221 also note that my two answers, excluding the initial quote, are very different from each other. They talk about different things. – Mari-Lou A Aug 26 '18 at 17:51
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The Arab expression Umm al-Ma'arik, meaning literally "mother of battles" would have been better translated as “the great battle,” “the mighty battle,” or even “the decisive battle.” according to a United Nations translator's letter to the The New York Times' editor

The original English quote, as cited by the Independent on January 19 1991, is

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

According to the Arab World Specialist at the Library of Congress, Mary Jane Deeb

“the flamboyant phrasing is rather typical of the Arabic language ... which is very rich in imagery.

‘Mother of battles,’ for example, is merely a literal English translation of the Arabic term for ‘supreme or ultimate battle,’ ” she says. “That is really the best way to say that in Arabic.” …
“Saddam Hussein is using language very carefully,” she says. “In some places these are appeals to pan-Arab political unity, in other places to the religious unity of Islam, and in still other places to particular groups within Iraq. But usually these are phrased in ways so as to invoke a continuity of history ... the traditional voice of an Arab leader calling to his people.”

IRAQ, MOTHER OF METAPHOR from The Washington Post; February 13, 1991

From The New York Times, published February 27, 1991

Saddam Hussein's Speech on the 'Withdrawal' of His Army From Kuwait

O great people; O stalwart men in the forces of holy war and faith, glorious men of the mother of battles; O zealous, faithful and sincere people in our glorious nations, and among all Muslims and all virtuous people in the world; O glorious Iraqi women…

We start by saying that on this day, our valiant armed forces will complete their withdrawal from Kuwait. And on this day our fight against aggression and the ranks of infidelity, joined in an ugly coalition comprising 30 countries, which officially entered war against us under the leadership of the United States of America…

Shout for victory, O brothers; shout for your victory and the victory of all honorable people, O Iraqis. You have fought 30 countries, and all the evil and the largest machine of war and destruction in the world that surrounds them. If only one of these countries [the 28 countries deployed in the Gulf area] threatens anyone, this threat will have a swift and direct effect on the dignity, freedom, life, or freedom of this or that country, people and nation. …

O you valiant men; you have fought the armies of 30 states and the capabilities of an even greater number of states which supplied them with the means of aggression and support. Faith, belief, hope and determination continue to fill your chests, souls and hearts.

They have even become deeper, stronger, brighter and more deeply rooted. God is great; God is great; may the lowly be defeated.

Victory is sweet with the help of God.

Interestingly, the word “all” is not used in any of the transcritions above, it makes its appearance in a speech by Dick Cheney, the Secretary of Defense on February 27, 1991.

A few days ago -- or actually several months ago Saddam Hussein promised that he would conduct the “mother of all battles.” And obviously it looks like what's happened is that the mother of all battles has turned into the mother of all retreats (06.29).

The OP's interpretation of the the words of Saddam Hussein, and the English translation of his speeches, which may have sounded hollow vainglorious threats to the West, do not appear to match. Here the term "mother" in the expression “mother of [all] battles” appears to signify greatest, monumental, or ultimate.

  • Why not just say the OP is off in his/her interpretation? It was: "I think the modern English usage is based on a misunderstanding of Saddam." The modern English usage has zero to do with Saddam. This issue is about translation from Arabic to English only and expressions in both languages. – Lambie Aug 26 '18 at 14:28
  • @Lambie initially I was unsure, I do not know Arab, so I had to find out for myself. If I knew from the beginning, I would have been more confident, and I would have posted earlier. I think I have provided good interesting evidence and support that shows the OP's interpretation is mistaken. If you find that evidence wishy-washy, I don't know. – Mari-Lou A Aug 26 '18 at 14:40
  • No, I think you research is fine. I would just have been harsher about the OP's question and statement, that's all. He's imply the English usage has something to "do with" Saddam. It does not. It has to do with Arabic and translation. – Lambie Aug 26 '18 at 14:43
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mother of all adjective Dalzell, Tom. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 2nd Edition. Routledge

Used of an epic, if not the epic, example in AmE.

From Saddam Hussein’s somewhat hyperbolic prediction that the western invasion of the Persian Gulf in 1991 would be the “mother of all battles”. Hussein’s use of a common Arabic vernacular expression immediately appealed to the American and British ear, with hundreds of variations appearing over several years–“the mother of all retreats”, “the mother of all confirmation hearings”, “the mother of all eclipses”, “the mother of all government mistakes”, etc.

As in:

Saddam Hussein said the war would be “the mother of all battles.” Reporters hailed Gen. Norman Schwarkzkopf’s press briefing as “the mother of all briefings.” Oh, brother. — The Detroit News, 4 March 1991

and

When Saddam Hussein predicted the Gulf War would be the “mother of all battles,” little did he know what was to follow. Everyone, it seems, has jumped on the “mother of all” bandwagon. — Los Angeles Times, p. E1, 29 January 1992

and

— Connie Eble (Editor), UNC-CH Campus Slang, p. 4, Fall 1993 [Y]ou looking for the mother of all smacks in the ‘ead or what. — Mark Steel, Reasons to be Cheerful, p. 209, 2001

"Perhaps that misunderstanding in part arises from the fact that Americans use mother as a profane abbreviation as noted above?" I do not believe that to be the case. My sense, from an AmE perspective and source is that it was to be epic ( and greatest, monumental, or ultimate as answered by another member scholar)! I do not sense any pejorative use of Mother.

mother OED

  1. A quality, institution, place, etc., that produces, protects, nurtures, or sustains people, ideas, etc. A protecting or nurturing, force.

As for etymology:

Mother of all ________ 1991, is Gulf War slang, from Saddam Hussein's use in reference to the coming battle; etymonline

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