English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

The original tiger mother?

Q: I’m curious to know if Amy Chua originated the phrase “tiger mother” or if it’s something that was around before her book. I (a possible Tiger Mom) can’t remember if I ever used it before Ms. Chua’s book and the subsequent media blitz.

A: No, Amy Chua didn’t coin the phrase in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a 2011 memoir about her strict parenting techniques, but she did help popularize the term.

Saul Bellow, for example, used the phrase several times before Ms. Chua’s book appeared in print. Here’s an example from his 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift:

“When she was in her busy mood, domineering and protecting me, I used to think what a dolls’ generalissimo she must have been in childhood. ‘And where you’re concerned,’ she would say, ‘I’m a tiger-mother and a regular Fury.’ ”

And here’s one of two examples in his 1989 novella The Bellerosa Connection: “They were married and, thanks to him, she obtained her closure, she became the tiger wife, the tiger mother, grew into a biological monument and a victorious personality.”

In fact, the phrase “tiger mother” has been around since the 19th century, although many early examples use it in the sense of a protective mother rather than one who is strict or domineering, a meaning reinforced by Ms. Chua’s memoir.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1878 English translation of Bilder aus Oberägypten, an 1876 book about upper Egypt by the German zoologist and physician Karl Benjamin Klunzinger.

In the English translation, Klunzinger says the fear of mothers-in-law among the Bedouin of upper Egypt “perhaps naturally arises from the relationship itself, being expressed also in our proverb ‘Mother-in-law—tiger mother’ or ‘Devil’s darling.’ ”

In the original German, Klunzinger refers to the expressions as “Schwiegermutter—Tigermutter” and “Schwiegermutter—Teufelsunterfutter.”

Comrades Two, a 1907 novel by Elizabeth Fremantle (the pseudonym of Elizabeth Rockfort Covey), has an early example of the phrase used in its protective sense.

In the novel, which is set in Saskatchewan, the mother of a son suffering  from typhoid fever says “the instinct of the tiger-mother is tearing my heart to pieces.”

This more recent example of the protective usage appears in an article (“Be My Baby,” by Jane Hutchinson) published on May 8, 2005, in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine: “My sister calls us ‘tiger mothers,’ because we’re so protective.”

Interestingly, the phrase is used with the words reversed in Mother Tiger, Mother Tiger (1974), the title of Rolf Forsberg’s short film about an angry mother who struggles to accept the fact that her child is severely handicapped.

Although “tiger mother” didn’t show up in English until the 19th century, the word “tiger” itself has been used figuratively since the 1500s in reference to someone who is fierce, cruel, active, strong, or courageous.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, cites a 1585 prayer that thanks God for foiling a plot against Queen Elizabeth and saving “her from the jaws of the cruel Tigers that then sought to suck her blood.”

The OED also has citations from around the same time of the word “tiger” used adjectivally and adverbially in a similar sense.

Here’s one from The Theatre of Gods Iudgements, a 1597 book by the English clergyman Thomas Beard about divine retribution: “The poore old man thus cruelly handled … departed comfortlesse from his Tygre-minded sonne.”

And the OED also has examples from the 1500s of “tigerlike” used both adjectivally and adverbially.

In The Historie of England (1587), Raphael Holinshed writes of men who avenged the wrongs of the past with “more than tigerlike crueltie.”

And in “The Complaynt of Phylomene,” a 1576 poem about Philomena’s murder of her son in Greek mythology, George Gascoigne writes that she took the boy “Tygrelike” and stabbed him in the heart.

We’ll end with an example of “tiger mother” from a 2014 review of Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Here’s how the New York Times reviewer describes the artist’s mom:

“So there she sits, old Mrs. Whistler, in her black dress and lacy bonnet. Call her the original tiger mother. If she looks back to dour Puritans, she looks forward to an American culture of self-display, where you are only as good as your most recent publicity.”

Note: Amy Chua tells us that she used the term “tiger mother” in her memoir because she was born in Year of the Tiger. She also reminds us that Jacqueline Kennedy once used the term to refer to her father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy. In an interview with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. for a 1964 oral history, she said, “I always thought he was the tiger mother.”

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