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'Your Momma's So Ugly, Her Portraits Hang Themselves': The History of Mom Jokes

From Ancient Babylonian riddles to prison fight talk, men have been talking smack about moms since 1500 BC.

Kadish Morris

Kadish Morris

Photo by Sean Locke via Stocksy

For the past 3,500 years, mothers have played a leading role in some of the most misogynistic insults ever documented. A cross-cultural study of insults in 103 languages found that in 66 languages, the most abusive curses were those involving mothers (while only 20 languages involved insults towards fathers). According to the RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Gender & Education, "Mothers are invoked in insults to probe young men's associative links with femininity and expose their vulnerabilities." Whether the intention is to start a fight or to get some laughs, the history of "yo momma" insults prove that the fastest way to a man's heart is by insulting his mother.

From Ancient Babylon to modern-day locker rooms

The oldest known maternal insult was found in 1976 on a 1500 BC Ancient Babylonian tablet during excavations by archaeologist J.J van Dijk in what is now modern day Iraq. Though the tablet has since disappeared, researchers M. P. Streck and N. Wasserman studied the tablet and found that one of the six riddles inscribed in the tablet was a quip about someone's mother:

"..of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?"

Admittedly, the punchline is lost in translation, but it still holds most of the basic characteristics of a joke you might hear in a 21st century high school locker room.

Let's get Biblical

The book that helped to build the patriarchy and gave us lines such as "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" has never spared mothers from its sovereignty of cruelness.

In Verse 2 Kings 9:22, when the Israeli king Joram encountered his feuding general Jehu, he said, "Is it peace, Jehu?" Jehu answered, "What peace, so long as the harlotries of your mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?"

Read More: Cracking Open the History of the Thong

Jehu's quick comeback was more than just a close-to-home jab to ruffle Joram's feathers. Jehu hated Joram's mother for her apparent sorceries and sexual activities so much, that he used it as a reason to murder him.

Shakespearean sons of bitches

Disputed amongst etymologists about the exact origin of the phrase, an elongated, arguably poetic version of the pejorative idiom "son of a bitch" can be accredited to Shakespeare. In Scene 2 Act 2 of the play King Lear first performed in 1606, Lear's servant Kent calls the steward Oswald "lily-livered," an "eater of broken meats," and "the Sonne and Heire of a Mungrill Bitch."

Life can be a real motherfucker. Photo by Lee Avison via Stocksy

The legal precedent for motherfuckers

The earliest citation of the adjective "motherfucking" can be found in an 1889 Texas Court of Appeals account of the trial Levy v. State, a slander case in which the accused called his alleged victim "that God damned motherfucking, bastardly son of a bitch." English language historian Geoffrey Hughes says the term is "unmatched in impact" as it succumbs to Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex that every child unconsciously desires to have sex with their parent.

According to sociolinguists, foul language was a manifestation of macho behaviour in all-male verbal contexts such as the armed forces, and the spread of the word "motherfucker" from the 1950s was due to swear words being brought back into society by demobilized civilians. However, in the jazz community, "motherfucker" was seen as a term of endearment. Miles Davis was famously known for his use of the word and upon meeting him for the first time, Miles called percussionist Cinelu a motherfucker. Cinelu apparently thanked Miles for the compliment.

From the Harlem Renaissance to MTV

Popular in black communities, The Dozens is a game in which two participants trash-talk each other in front of an audience. While each other's intelligence, financial status and appearance can be used as roasting material; a player's fat or ugly mother is usually the game's key theme. Theories have suggested that the absence of a father figure meant the African-American male was "constantly exposed to the problems and sacrifices of his mother's attempt to raise a family without a co-provider" and was therefore "unexpectedly sensitive, protective, and empathetic toward his mother."

The Dozens influenced the work of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes, who wrote: "They rung my bell to ask me / Could I recommend a maid / I said, yes, your momma." Elijah Wald, author of The Dozens: A History of Rap's Mama says in an interview with Boston Globe: "I started looking through writers from the Harlem Renaissance, there's a Dozens scene in virtually every book." Some decades later, MTV brought out a show called Yo Momma which ran from 2006 to 2007 and featured famous rappers, skilled trash-talkers, and jokes such as "Yo momma's a dyslexic hooker, for $50, she'll sick your duck."

Mom talk in prison

"WICKEDSKENGMAN Part 4" by grime MC Stormzy went viral in 2015 with over four million YouTube views and features the line, "Suck your mom, yeah, go and do that." The phrase — often used as a catalyst for confrontation — is used habitually in grime. Like a lot of slang, it has roots that can be found in prison. In the BBC Panorama episode Boys Behind Bars broadcast in 2001, an inmate explains: "Fights in prison they always start with, 'Suck your mom.' If someone says to you, 'Suck your mom,' they're basically telling you that they want to fight you."

It's hard not to notice that many maternal insults are sexually pejorative; they're considered offensive to the receiver because they effectively sully a mother's perceived sinlessness and innocence. It all boils down to our long-held glorification of moms as what anthropologist David D. Gilmore describes as "pure and sexless," which in turn means "all nubile and unrelated women – must be denigrated as 'worthless' and 'dirty.'" So whether it's ancient Babylonian humour or contemporary trash talk, history tells us that as long as men are intent on publicizing their bravado, your momma's so ugly, her portraits hang themselves.