The German Word ‘Muttermal’ Posted by Constanze on Sep 30, 2020 in History, Language
Guten Tag! Wie geht’s? Today we’re going to look at an interesting German word – das Muttermal.
Das Muttermal is the German word for a birthmark or mole – as in, the moles on your skin, not the mole the animal (this is called der Maulwurf in German!).
The literal translation of Muttermal is ‘mother sign’ (die Mutter + das Mal). However, it’s a very interesting word because Mal means something different in today’s German than it did back in the 16. Jahrhundert (16th Century), when it first came about. So, it would be more accurate to say that the word Muttermal translated to ‘mother sign’ back then.
In the 16th Century, the word das Mal primarily meant ‘sign’- as in, a sign of wealth, a sign from God, etc. Nowadays, you’d call a sign das Zeichen in German, and the word das Mal is used primarily to describe a fixed point in time (however, it does also carry the similar translation of ‘mark’). For example:
Das war das letzte Mal.
That was the last time.
There are actually many ways to use the word Mal, but for the sake of keeping things simple, I will just mention this meaning for now. (Let me know if you’d like a separate post about the word Mal!)
So, back to birthmarks. In the 16th Century, a mole/birthmark was called das Muttermal – a ‘mother sign’. What were they meant to be signs of, exactly? Apparently, they were signs of a mother’s cravings during die Schwangerschaft (pregnancy). People believed that, for example, if a birthmark was in the shape of a grape, that meant the mother ate a lot of grapes during her pregnancy. Another view was that a birthmark signified that the mother had done something wrong during her pregnancy. Either way, moles and birthmarks were seen as being influenced by the mother, hence the name Muttermal.
Related words and vocabulary:
Die Sommersprosse – freckle (lit: ‘summer bud’)
Der Leberfleck – liver spot (often used interchangeably with Muttermal)
Der Pigmentfleck – pigmentation mark
Das Feuermal – red pigmentation mark, lit: ‘fire sign’ (also der Portweinfleck, after the English port wine stain)
Die Haut – skin
Der Hautkrebs – skin cancer
Der Hautarzt – dermatologist
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