M: The Letter of the Maternal Embrace

In a nook That opened south, You and I Lay mouth to mouth

In May John Millington Synge

It’s difficult to resist the mellow tones of the onomatopoeic M. This initial letter of music, melodies and musings was originally used to denote water in hieroglyphic writings, and recalls these origins by mimicking the murmuring sound made by gently flowing water.

Created by pursing the lips and projecting a gentle hum, the M resonates maternalcomfort in words like mother, madam, maiden, matronly, maternal, mercy, mild, moan, mama, and mmm. The mmm soundis one of the first to be uttered by infants when demanding mother's milk, and the word for mother contains an m in just about every language on earth: mater (Latin), mama (Italian), moeter (German), mer (Vietnam), Imma (Sanskrit), and mama (Zulu).

Form follows function when it comes to the physical shape of the letter M, for the two prominently rounded forms (m)are reminiscent of female mammaries. Perhaps this is whythe letter M has come to symbolize those most enduring of human institutions: marriage and mistresses. With this strong reference to the mother image, it's not surprising that twice as many girls' names as boys’ names begin with an M (Mary is the single-most popular girl's name in the U.S.). Even when M names are anagrammized, its gentle overtones bring warmth to the new words: Marcel (calmer), Mallory (morally), Maribel (balmier), Marlon (normal), and Miles (smile).

The sexual allure of the M is unlike that of the sensual S or the carnal R. It’s more manipulative, with none of the in-your-face implication of imminent action. It plays on deep desires springing from one's association with one's mother, evoking warmth and nourishment while holding out the promise of a more meaningful relationship. But because of the M’s deep sentimental qualities, it makes words like menace, malice, murder, maniac, mayhem, misery, maim and madman seem all the more malevolent.