She asked me the other day, “What’s the matter with you?”
I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know anything, in particular, was the matter and then my stupid brain started knit-picking the question.
I then replied, “What does that even mean? What is the definition of matter?”
These days, we think of the word “matter” in terms of its definition relative to chemistry or science.
material substance that occupies space, has mass, and is composed predominantly of atoms consisting of protons, neutrons, and electrons, that constitutes the observable universe, and that is interconvertible with energy
Merriam Webster Dictionary
So, how do we get from matter as an object with mass to matter as some disposition of disturbance or malcontent?
Yes. That was my question, too!
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.”
“An event, circumstance, fact, question, state or course of things.” There you have it! When you ask someone who seems disturbed or downtrodden what is the matter, you are asking, “What is the circumstance or state of things that has you in a funk (or disagreeable, or bawling like a baby)?
Speaking of bawling like a baby here is another interesting morsel from the grammarphobia folks…
“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.”
Matter = mater = ma = mother.
When a baby cries, its mother tries to determine the reason for the upset. Since the baby is incapable of explaining the problem in plain English, Momma wants to know “what is the matter” with her poor baby.
Luckily, not many babies are reading this post. You are not one. You know what is the matter with you. You can articulate it. No need to whine or blubber or sulk. No need to push your hands into your pockets and bury your chin in your neck. No need to walk around downcast in some mysterious gloom. No need to make everyone around you guess.
I will ask you as she asked me, “What is the matter with you?”
The burdens we bear can sometimes feel like the other definition of matter, like an enormous weight upon our backs, dragging us down, crushing our spirit.
What is the matter with you? What are you prepared to do about it? Is it a burden you have to carry alone? Is there support you ought to seek? Do you need advice? A helping hand?
Or will you do like me and simply change the subject, focus on the etymology of the inquiry, wonder why we say things the way we do, and then go down some rabbit hole and, ultimately, burden readers with it?
That’s something, though. Go on, then.