Word Of The Week, Mote

A mote.

A mote plays havoc with my autocorrect here. If, my dear iPhone, I had meant ‘more’, ‘moat’, ‘mots’, ‘motte’ or ‘mite’, please be assured that I would have written that! I am a man with a brain; you are a piece of plastic connected to the Internet. Therefore in all things, I am right and you are wrong!!

But is it my phone’s fault that it does not recognise the word mote? Let us consider: my iPhone is 6 months old, give or take; the word we’re looking at is perhaps over a thousand years old. I will have trouble next week putting names to faces of classes I’ve not seen for six weeks, let alone a thousand years!

Because mote evolved – I was going to say coined but I’m assuming that evolved is a better word: the deliberate coining on neologisms to describe new inventions or concepts feels very modern and industrialised; evolution feels more traditional, natural and organic. But these are just feelings and my prejudices with absolutely no evidence – around 1000-1200 AD. It seems to have come from Old English into Middle English.

And it means a speck, a particle, a tiny thing. A nubbin. Which is a glorious word itself: nubbin.

Anyway, I am being distracted!

Back to mote.

Phonologically, it is pronounced to be a homophone for moat.

On an aside and returning to the frustrations of autocorrect functions: when writing homophone the iPhone autocorrects it to homophobe. What a sad indictment of the universe we live in that we might be more likely to be discussing the prejudiced and abhorrent world of homophobes before the world of language and phonology.

Anyway, digressing again Mr P!

Phonologically, we open with the long sensuous /m/ rolling around inside our mouths, our lips pressed together. This /m/ could last for as long as we wanted it to. We could savour it, linger over it, prolong it.

Until, that is the short vowel /əʊ/ and precise /t/ cut it off short.

It is almost as if the tiny precise /t/ phoneme is the speck, hidden in the vast and rolling world encapsulated by the /m/.

And the word mote has a poetic and lyrical depth to it for such a tiny word.

The word is used biblically to describe hypocrisy:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

This at least is the King James translation of Matthew 7:3. More recent translations have tended to go for speck, speck of sawdust or even the – in my opinion very ungainly – chip. I understand why: speck of sawdust has a more direct comparison with beam or – even more ungainly – plank. And these are translation of the Greek word Καρφος meaning splinter – which is itself a translation from the Hebrew. But mote is just so much more resonant!

And the second massively familiar quote is from Carl Sagan who describes our own planet – our green and pleasant land – our terraqueous globe – as

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.


Who says scientists can’t be lyrical?! What a beautiful phrase to encapsulate the beauty, preciousness, miraculousness and perhaps insignificance and fragility of our daily squabbles.


This is the photo taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 which inspired Sagan. Beneath is a more recent and spectacularly beautiful photo that shows again the mote on which we live, love, hope, dream and die.

This picture was found here http://spaceweather.com/gallery/indiv_upload.php?upload_id=70852 and has been scaled for effect.


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