Q&A: “Mother load” vs “mother lode”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have loaded questions…

Q: Hey AWC, I went to a jams and preserves fair on the weekend and got a load of stuff. In particular, I found a mother load of marmalade.

A: Mother load?

Q: Yes, the mother of all loads, absolutely. I found some delicious ones.

A: It’s actually “mother lode” or sometimes “motherlode” one word.

Q: What? A lode?

A: That’s right. According to Macquarie Dictionary, a “mother lode” is defined as a rich or principal lode. And a lode is “a vein-like deposit, usually containing metal”.

Q: But wait, marmalade doesn’t contain any metal. Unless you count when I’m spooning it out. What’s the deal?

A: The metal is the literal meaning – where you’ll find most of a particular ore accumulating when you’re mining. A lode.

Q: A lode? Really?

A: Yep. It actually started off in the Middle Ages with the same spelling as “load”, but by the 1500s it had branched off to a new word “lode” – originally meaning “a way, a course, something to be followed.” You may have heard of a “lodestone” – a magnetically polarised oxide of iron, it was used to make compass magnets and guide sailors during this time. Likewise, there was a “lodestar” – an old name for the pole star also used for navigation.

Q: Are you sure this isn’t a load of…

A: No, it’s true. A “lode” was all about guiding your way. There was even a word “livelode” which meant “a means of keeping alive through the course of your life”.

Q: Livelode? Never heard of it.

A: It had a Middle Ages makeover and was changed to what we now know as “livelihood”.

Q: What a lively discussion this is.

A: But getting back to mining, that “guiding course” vibe was seen with miners following the vein of ore through the rock – the “lode”.

Q: Sure, but what about the mother lode?

A: Okay, well this came much later – not till around the mid-1800s and was said to be a translation of the Spanish veta madre – which was the name given for rich silver veins found in Mexico. One such vein was 11km long!

Q: Wow, that's certainly more than just a sliver of silver.

A: That discovery definitely had a silver lining.

Q: Nice. But where was the term first used in English?

A: The term “motherlode” was first used in California to describe gold-rich quartz during the gold rushes of that time.

Q: So it was named after silver veins and began describing veins of gold. But when did it stop being so literal and start being used for marmalade or other exciting quantities of items?

A: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “motherlode” was first used in a figurative sense around 1916 – to describe a “richest source of anything”.

Q: Such as these conversations – they would surely provide a mother lode of information on words and phrases, right?

A: That’s right! As well as also providing a load of information. 

Q: So is there EVER a time I should use “mother load” in my writing?

A: Not in this context. They should only coexist if, for example, you’re talking about helping your mother load the car for a road trip.

Q: Oooh, I love road trips. Where are we going?

A: You’re going mining for gold.

Q: Haha. So on Mother’s Day, a mother might get a load of gifts. And one of those gifts might be a mother lode of marmalade, right?

A: Technically yes. But that’s a lot of breakfasts in bed.

Q: And is “mother lode” one word or two?

A: We recommend two separate words, but you may also see it written as “motherlode” and this is also acceptable.

Q: So to recap, even though we might refer to something big as “the mother of all something”, and a lot of something as “a load”, it is actually a “mother LODE” of something.

A: That’s it! And that something can be gold, marmalade or anything where you might have located a rich deposit or collection of the same thing.

Q: Okay great! Well, I better go help pack the car…

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