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No easy explanation for ‘mother of vinegar’

SHARE No easy explanation for ‘mother of vinegar’

Question: Why is that milky white substance in vinegar called "mother"?Answer: The substance you're referring to, known as "mother of vinegar" or sometimes simply as "mother," is described in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "a slimy membrane composed of yeast and bacterial cells that develops on the surface of alcoholic liquids undergoing acetous fermentation and is added to wine or cider to produce vinegar." The origins of the term are almost as murky as the substance itself.

There are some who believe that the substance was called "mother of vinegar" because the bacterial cells promote the fermentation of the wine or cider, thus "engendering" the vinegar or nurturing its development.

The equivalent French and Spanish terms, respectively "mere de vinaigre" and "madre de vinagre," seem to corroborate this "maternal" etymology, since both "mere" and "madre" derive directly from the Latin "mater," "mother."

However, when we look into possible Germanic roots of English "mother" in this sense, this facile theory appears less certain. It seems highly probable that "mother" in this specific use may be related to the Middle Dutch "modder," "moeder," which means "dregs, lees." Exactly how the Middle Dutch word came to acquire this sense is itself a long, complex, and somewhat speculative story. Suffice it so say that the exact origins of "mother of vinegar" are not known with certainty at this time.

Question: Which is correct -- "suspend disbelief" or "suspend belief"? It seems it ought to be "suspend disbelief," if the idea is to try and make a story seem real. But I have heard or seen "suspend belief" enough to wonder if I'm wrong.

Answer: The two expressions, apparent opposites, are sometimes used to mean the same thing.

The notion of "suspending disbelief" goes back to at least the early 19th century. "Willing suspension of disbelief" was a phrase that the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge used in writing about his own poetry -- specifically, poetry like "The Rime of The Ancient Mariner" concerning "persons and characters supernatural or at least romantic." He was talking about willingly accepting such "shadows of imagination" as real while reading and finding meaning in a poem.

The phrase didn't catch the public's fancy at first; for a long time it seems to have had little currency outside the narrow confines of literary criticism.

"Suspend belief" may have originated as a deliberate, perhaps playful, takeoff on the old phrase, or it may be based on nothing more than a simple misunderstanding.

In any case, while we do have a small amount of evidence showing "suspend belief" used in its literal meaning, it's clear that most of the people who use this phrase really intend it to mean "suspend disbelief." You probably have heard, in reference to a work of real fiction -- a movie, a play, or a novel -- something like, "For the sake of enjoyment, the reader (or moviegoer or playgoer) should suspend belief."

Such usage isn't logical, of course, but chances are that most people don't even notice the error. Suppose, for example, you heard someone say in regard to old Godzilla movies, "Audiences back then suspended their belief willingly." Stop and analyze it, and it doesn't make sense, since it's the unbelievability of Godzilla that's at issue. But we still understand what is meant. The error is unobtrusive, and, for that reason, the phrase has so far raised little comment.