Oh, what can the ‘matter’ be?

June 27, 2014 

I am intrigued by the origin, meaning, pronunciation and application of words.

While most words have specific meanings, we employ other words, like “thing” and “something,” when we can’t think of specific words to describe situations, incidents, objects and even people. We say “that’s the thing of it” when referring to the crux of some discussion, or “that thing doesn’t work” when referring to some object or mechanical part. Similarly, we use “something” to describe a person, as in “she is something else,” or “that is something for us to think about” when speaking of a plan needing futher study.

For now, however, consider another familiar word, one we use frequently in our conversations and writings. It is the word “matter.” That standalone word can have almost unlimited uses in its variety of meanings, most of which we readily understand.

A familiar nursery rhyme, which can be traced to 18th century England, says, “O dear, what can the matter be?”

Someone familiar with the rhyme has poetically described the properties of “matter” by saying:

A sol-id has weight, takes up space,

Has a cer-tain shape.

Li-quid has weight, takes up space,

But con-forms to the ves-sel in which it is put.

So a sol-id and li-quid

Look dif-f’rent to me.

Oh, dear, what can this mat-ter be?

Oh, dear, what can this mat-ter be?

Oh, dear, what can this mat-ter be?

Sol-id or li-quid or gas?

The word in question is “matter,” which most of us use in referring to things both tangible and intangible. Consider a few examples.

We use “matter” to identify the substance of which an object consists, as when saying, “It is mainly vegetable matter,” “It is filled with radioactive matter,” or “It contains poisonous matter.”

The word “matter” may describe a subject under discussion: “That’s the matter before us.” “That’s the matter in question.” “What really matters.” “As for that matter.”

A response to receiving some kind of news can elicit comments like “It doesn’t matter to me,” “That doesn’t matter at all,” or “Why should that be a matter of concern?”

We use “matter” when measuring the importance of things, as when saying, “That is a serious matter,” “The matter with that is ...,” or “That matter can be damaging.”

Matter can relate to a person’s appearance. When someone is crying, we might ask, “What’s the matter?”

Matter may refer to pus or substances exuding from a sore or wound. As children, many of us awoke with stuck eyelids because we had “matter” in our eyes.

“Matter” can refer to a measurement of time: “It can be cooked in a matter of minutes.”

Matter also identifies various circumstances: “That’s a financial matter.” “That’s a medical matter.” “That’s a domestic matter.” “That’s a personal matter.” “That is a matter for the police.” “That’s a political matter.” “That’s a different matter altogether.”

People use that vague word to say, “That’s a formal matter,” “That is a legal matter,” “That is not a laughing matter,” or “She had to deal with some personal matters.”

We know libraries are filled with “reading matter,” and we often describe written evidence by saying “it’s a matter of record” or “it is printed matter.”

So “matter” is a freewheeling word, meaning little or nothing or meaning just about everything. So “O dear, what can the matter be?” could be almost anything or everything. But does that matter to us? Perhaps it “matters” very little.

Ray Hodge is a retired pastor who makes his home in Smithfield.

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