Monster-in-law

Article published on March 2, 2011
Article published on March 2, 2011
'Give up all hope of peace so long as your mother-in-law is alive!' So goes the first century AD jibe by Roman satirist Juvenal. In many respects, Europeans share a common opinion when it comes to the woman who gave birth to their other halves. Be she a Spanish suegra, Italian suocera or Portuguese and Catalan sogra, mother-in-law universally translates into all languages as ‘monster-in-law’!

The Brits make the clear connection with the 'law' part of the 'in-law', as technically, this woman becomes your ‘mother according to the law.’ That sometimes also condemns you on living together forever! Today, a separate flat within an English family home is described as a granny flat or mother-in-law suite.

In typical festive mood, the Spaniards scare away their mothers-in-law by blowing on their party whistles, the so-called matasuegras (literally kill the mothers-in-law). Meanwhile the Italians associate the concept of the mother-in-law with bad weather in the proverb suocera e nuora, tempesta e gragnuola (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law – thunderstorms and hailstorms).

The 'mother-in-law couch' also takes on botanical depths. In Spain the asiento de suegra (literally the mother-in-law throne), is the name of a large cactus shaped like a seat. In Italian the concept of a seat+mother-in-law is usually referred to as the seat next to the driver in a car: il posto della suocera. The English familiarise the mother-in-law's shape better with the plant called the mother-in-law's tongue - a bold piece which stands erect, its sword like leaves stretching up into the sky.

Only the French and Dutch break ranks, respectively describing their mothers-in-law as belle-mère and schoonmoeder (beautiful mother). Gallant, creepy or a perverse Oedipus complex? The two countries are not understood by the rest of Europe - where maybe it was the evil omen of the mother-in-law which influenced the French and Dutch 'No' to the 2005 proposed European constitution.

First published on cafebabel.com on 4 July 2007