It began with some graffiti on a wall: A toda madre o un desmadre. Liza Bakewell was in Mexico doing research for her PhD, and although she thought her Spanish was fluent, she had never seen the expression before. When she asked what it meant, she was told that it wasn't proper for a woman to use those words.
Intrigued with the way Mexicans shape their language and how language in turn shapes them, Bakewell developed a long list of madre expressions over the years. How can me vale madre mean worthless and !que padre! mean marvellous? Why does madre mean whore as much as virgin?
Her study is part memoir, part travelogue, and part investigation into a culture and its language.