Tons ‘O Fun.

Dear Word Detective:  I was amazed to find out yesterday that the word is “motherlode,” and not, as I had always thought, “motherload.” It made sense to me that it was a whole “load” of stuff. Is this a common mistake? Thanks and say hi to the cats. — Rachel.

Cats? What cats? You mean pets? We don’t actually have any pet cats here. We do have some Cross-Species Studies exchange students living with us, for whom we furnish room and board as well as advanced tutoring and sanitation training. I explained all this to the guy from the IRS when he asked about our deductions. He wished us luck, which I took to mean that everything’s cool.

That’s a good question, and yes, it appears that you are far from alone in thinking the usual form of the term is “motherload.” A quick search of Google produces 1,220,000 results for “motherlode,” but 4,290,000 hits for “motherload.” The results may be slightly skewed by puns (e.g., “motherload” in the title of articles about family stress), and there is apparently a popular band called “Motherload,” but I’d say the form “motherlode” is in real danger of eventually being supplanted in popular usage by “motherload.”

If I sound a bit blasé when I say that, it’s because “lode” and “load” were the same word to begin with. They are, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “etymologically identical,” one being merely a “graphic variant,” a slightly different spelling, of the other. That’s not to say that the words are interchangeable; the spelling difference between”lode” and “load” has led to slightly different meanings over the years.

“Lode” and “load” first appeared in Old English, drawn from the same Germanic roots that eventually also produced “to lead” in the sense of “to guide, conduct.” “Load/lode” was also influenced by the separate word “lade,” meaning “to load or burden,” which is now obsolete except in such terms as “bill of lading,” the noun “ladle” and the participle “laden” (“Laden with debt, Larry played Lotto.”).

The original sense of “load/lode” in Old English was “way, route” or “means of transport.” As the forms diverged in meaning in the 13th century, “load” developed in the sense of “that which is carried,” now familiar in everything from the “load” of a truck to the “debt load” that prompted Larry to gamble.

“Lode,” however, developed in the “guide, signal” sense, giving us “lodestar,” a bright star in the sky (usually Polaris) used to navigate ships, and “lodestone,” the naturally magnetic mineral “magnetite,” used in primitive compasses. In the 17th century, “lode” began to be used to mean a rich vein of mineral ore in the earth that, once discovered, would guide miners in their excavations. Starting in the 19th century, an unusually large and rich lode was known as a “motherlode” (“The lode called the Esmeralda, the most prominent and apparently the mother lode of the district, runs with the meridian.” 1863). Beginning in the 1920s, a rich source of anything was figuratively known as a (or “the”) “motherlode” (“The pages of the T.L.S. were the very mother-lode of academic inanity.” 1960).

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