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In Mexican spanish at least, I can think the following (I may be forgetting some):

  • Andar hasta la madre ~ Being really drunk
  • Estar hasta la madre ~ Being really far | Being sick/tired of something
  • Valer/Importar madre ~ Being worthless | Not caring about something
  • Ser a toda madre ~ Being cool/great
  • Ir a madre ~ Travel really fast
  • Darle (a alguien) en la madre | Partir (a alguien) la madre ~ Beating up someone
  • No tener madre ~ Being shameless
  • Ni madre(s) ~ Nothing | No way!
  • Sepa la madre ~ Who knows?
  • Poca madre ~ Can be either something bad i.e. que poca madre tienes is used to express disgust, or good i.e. esa cosa esta de poca madre is used to say something is good/great
  • Madrecita/Madresota ~ something small/big
  • etc...

Why is it so, while some of these expressions may make sense if you're creative and think about how it can be related to a mother, some other are really seem to be unrelated to the actual concept of the word...

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3  
So, ok, you wrote the most decent ones! –  c.p. Jul 30 '13 at 20:53
    
@JorgeCampos you mean that this doesn't include the vulgar ones, right? right ? =) –  Alfredo Osorio Jul 30 '13 at 21:30
    
@AlfredoOsorio exactly! as a matter of fact, before my first comment here, I wrote a pair...but then I regrettet and erased. -- But being serious, this phenomenon is not exclusive of Spanish (of course). Beyond the well-known English expressions, Russians have curse words related to mothers as well, and in French there is ça tue sa mère. In German I don't know them as interjections -- just as an insults (but of course there might be). +1, it's really puzzling me! –  c.p. Jul 30 '13 at 21:46
    
Those expresions in Spain doesn't mean anything although we know some of them exists in South America. –  aitorpc Aug 4 '13 at 16:15

4 Answers 4

It helps to compare with the other (strong) word that has a myriad uses in Mexican Spanish: chingar

The origin of that word is unclear, although it may come from Nahuatl (the Aztec language). What is important is that its basic meaning (from which all other uses stem) is to rape. Thus, the standard insult in Mexico is hijo de la chingada, or son of the raped one instead of son of a whore, which is the more standard one in Spain and in other languages.

In Mexico the shame comes from your mother being defiled rather than being a sex worker. A popular theory expounded by Octavio Paz in "El Laberinto de la Soledad" is that this is the historical result of most native women being forcibly taken by the conquistadores. In other words, the entire Mestizo race has this uncomfortable, shameful fact about its origins to deal with.

I think this theory is overreaching. It cannot be falsified and is a bit simplistic. BUT it gives you an important insight into your question! La Chingada is a prototypical entity in Mexican folklore; she is the abstract "raped mother", which explains why the word madre has so many negative connotations (have you realized that padre in contrast is always a positive term?)

What may be more difficult to explain is why some uses of madre are positive, although I suspect this is simply because it is used sooo much that eventually it found use with those meanings out of sheer wordplay.

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My impression is that it derives from Catholicism and the emphasis on Mother Mary or "Madre de dios". For example: "¡Madre mia!"

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could be, I have never really tought of that but definitely could be. –  Newbie Aug 15 '13 at 20:50
    
So why are the expressions in the question particular to Mexico only (mostly)? –  Rodrigo A. Pérez Sep 20 '13 at 12:54

I guess it has many different meanings because is a very old word, meaning Latin based and after that used in many other languages. Don't forget the sound "ma" is barely in every language and it means "mother" in most cases: madre (spa), mother (eng), mãe (por), ma (afrikaans), mutter (ger), mare (catalan), mère (fr), mam (Gales), moeder (Holand), and so on.

To understand the use of the word in such expressions (Mexican Spanish) we should consider analyzing other factors such as the role of women in Mexican society.

Languages evolve constantly, and get "updates" according to social changes and customs. The word "madre" and its variations' been suffering changes since long time ago.

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I just came across something interesting in the same way. I've been told that when people mention "padre" (=father) in Mexican Spanish their meanings reference something good/positive. Seems to be the same case in the other way around –  LPoblet Aug 7 '13 at 10:03
    
you are right there is the expression "¡qué padre!" –  Alfredo Osorio Aug 8 '13 at 14:10

"Madre," which means "mother," is being used in these contexts as something of a "swear word." The original "oath," of course is "mother-[loving]."

But the other uses denote "extreme" behaviors: e.g.,

andar...la madre, drunkeness; "no tener madre," (have no control), or shameless; "ir a madre" (ltierally, "go to mother), that is, go fast.

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