Q: I was listening to an Oliver Sacks book on my commute and was struck by his repeated use of “the matter,” as in “What seems to be the matter?” and “There’s nothing the matter.” I’m curious as to the history of this usage.
A: Let’s begin with the word “matter,” which comes via Anglo-Norman and Old French from the classical Latin noun māteria.
In Latin, the word originally referred to building material, especially wood, but Roman writers later used it figuratively to mean material for discussion or consideration.
When “matter” showed up in English in the Middle Ages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “an event, circumstance, fact, question, state or course of things, etc., which is or may be an object of consideration or practical concern; a subject, an affair, a business.”
The earliest example of “matter” in the OED is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:
“Of þis ilke Materie ich spec Muchel þer uppe” (“I spoke much of this same matter above”).
The dictionary says this sense of “matter” inspired several idiomatic expressions (“there is something the matter,” “what is the matter?” and so on) in which “the matter” refers to “the condition of or state of things regarding a person or thing, esp. as a subject of concern or wonder.”
The first OED example for the usage comes from Andria, an English translation, dated around 1520, of a Roman comedy adapted by Terence from a Greek play by Menander: “What is the matter now.”
Oxford also cites Shakespeare’s Othello (circa 1603): “What is the matter here?” And this citation is from Daniel Defoe’s The Family Instructor (1715), a guide to good conduct: “I beseech you what is the Matter with you!”
The OED says “what is the matter with—?” can mean “what is wrong with—?” or “what is the objection to—?” or “what is there to complain of in—?”
“In recent colloquial use,” the dictionary explains, the noun “matter” is “sometimes interpreted as a predicative adjective in the sense ‘wrong, amiss.’ ”
Interestingly, the word “matter” can be traced to māter-, the same reconstructed prehistoric base as “mother,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The dictionary adds that māter- is “based ultimately on the baby-talk form mā-, with the kinship term suffix -ter-.”
How, you may be wondering, did that ancient Indo-European root give Latin both māter (“mother”) and māteria (“wood”)?
The OED says the “wood” sense of māteria is “usually explained as originally denoting the trunk of a tree regarded as the ‘mother’ of its offshoots.”