The latent impressions of words (or, ‘Please don’t call me mate!’)

A word can take root and lodge in your psyche and a whole host of memories, emotions and reactions are then triggered when you hear the word again.  I had a powerful experience of this recently.

The reaction can be irrational and disproportionate to the speaker’s intention on one level; on another level, it can be deeply revealing, both for the receiver and for the speaker too perhaps, if they reflect.  And on yet another level, the reactions, lodged in an individual psyche, can be revealing of the personal history of the word itself, its own unique journey of meaning, development and effect witnessed in and over time.

This is the verbal equivalent of Proust’s famous Madeleine.  See

Tasting the Madeleine takes Proust back in time and triggers sensations from that earlier time.  Hearing a word that is important for you, can be like a pressure point, a trigger to react, based on the past associations you have for that word, now felt and reactivated in this present moment.

The word vasana in Sanskrit may be translated as ‘latent impressions’.  Words can leave impressions, imprinted deeply in the psyche.  Reactions to these impressions are samskara, ‘tendencies’,over which we have little control as long as they remain unconscious and we are unaware.  Tendencies may become habitual, sometimes with long gaps between their activation, and they can take the form of patterns of behaviour.
Maybe it’s because I’m an American woman, but for me the word ‘mate’ just doesn’t work as a term of true friendship or connection, with either men or women.  It’s fine on a meaningless, superficial level, and probably you’re wondering, why bother to write about it when it’s such a seemingly trivial word? 
It was just that I found myself reacting strongly to the word when a man called me ‘mate’ recently and very quickly that took me back in time to two other isolated experiences, and rather strangely it quickly took me into the future when another man called me ‘mate’ several days later.  Strange coincidence as men almost never call me mate.  The first three of these were all significant exchanges from men who mattered – not an idle descriptor from some man I’d never met before.  And I reacted strongly each time the word was used.  Everytime it’s resonated, left a mark, and each time the previous instance has been there to make the mark deeper.

Who would have thought the word ‘mate’ and the Yoga Sutras could be so intimately connected?

Nothing destroys vāsana (latent impressions), only they become ineffective (Yoga Sutra C2 v4).
– TKV Desikachar January 11th 1995

But saṃskāra (tendencies) can be fed by vāsana (latent impressions).” (Yoga Sūtra C4 v9)
– TKV Desikachar January 12th 1995

“Saṃskāra (tendencies) is so powerful, it can lead you to act without thinking.” (Yoga Sūtra C4 v11)
– TKV Desikachar January 12th 1995

[Translations/quotations from Paul Harvey]

So I took a little time to investigate the chain of reactions and this also took me into the history of the word itself.

When a man calls another man ‘mate’, that feels like some loose link – a builder’s mate or a drinking mate in the pub.  I heard the word used a few times in this way last night. When a man calls a woman ‘mate’, that intuitively feels like whatever the female equivalent of emasculation is – to me anyway.  The closest word for this is ‘defeminise’ which may not even exist. When a woman calls a man ‘mate’, that feels like she’s trying to be one of the blokes. And when a woman calls a woman ‘mate’, well, that just doesn’t happen, does it? 

The first time I was called ‘mate’ was many years ago when a close male friend I’d been helping through a really tough time, suddenly called me ‘mate’ at the end of a phone call. That was just the way he signed off with his male friends when they were planning to go to the pub.  I felt really distanced and emotionally pushed away. My stuff no doubt. But somehow I blamed that word ‘mate’ for all those feelings and stored that linkage of the word with the feelings unconsciously at a deep level.

I guess the bad feeling was still there as a latent impression because when, quite a few years later, another man called me ‘mate’, it resurfaced strongly.  A completely different situation, a friend of his had introduced me and the group I was with, as this man’s ‘followers’, a word that really annoyed me – maybe because it was partly true! I felt we were his friends, we were loyal supporters, and I wanted to be acknowledged as such. I had a brief chat with him to say this, and he seemed baffled, telling me that I was a ‘walking mate’. I was baffled and astonished by the word which felt so far from the situation as I experienced it, and felt intensely male to me. The word came at me unexpectedly and in the moment of utterance, it didn’t feel any better than ‘followers’ – although on reflection, understanding the context of the entire situation, I realise it was actually intended as confirmation of a genuine connection.

At that time, I didn’t realise that my response was coloured by the earlier incident.

So the third time when I heard the word from another man, all the conditions were right for me to react without thinking once again.

Can I blame my reactions on just a simple word? As Oysterband say in their poignant song ‘Put out the lights’, ‘every place that I have been, leaves its message on my skin’. So it is for me with words. Some words have a resonance, a history, their own personal etymology, there to be resurfaced in the next utterance, the next hearing, the next meeting. A word is like a touch on the skin, a press of the hand, torch paper waiting to be lit.

How to strip language of that personal etymology to which we become so deeply attached? How to not be stirred by these latent impressions which can impel action often without thought?

Of course a word is also intimately connected with its intonation. In my first example the word was uttered in a careless matey way and that is no doubt part of the reason I took against it so strongly and why it embedded itself in my operating system to be retriggered. The second time round it was offered in a kind of bemused, explanatory way – ‘why are you upset? We’re all mates.’  I am not sure of the intonation of the third utterance.

The other morning, when I opened my Facebook account there was a comment from an Indian male friend and he called me ‘mate’ – I was astonished!  Here it was happening again and right while I was trying to get to the bottom of this ‘mate’ phenomenon.  I noted that the other friends he’d responded to on the same topic hadn’t been called ‘mate’.  So I asked him what he meant.

‘One who customarily associates with another; a companion; an associate; a person you know well and regard with affection and trust!  This is what I conjure up as a mate.  I use the term for like-minded/close friends….in a very asexual manner.  Though the term originated to mean a biological partner amongst animals but the tenor I apply is a tenor which the Aussies have given to the word!’

Good stuff, most of it – but I’m not very comfortable being asexualised (to coin another word). Interesting too that he links ‘mate’ with ‘partner’, another word I dislike.

The history of ‘mate’ and the words we link it with, of which there are so many, are interesting to reflect on briefly. Housemate, teammate, groupmate, walking mate, drinking mate – all fairly mundane examples of what ‘mate’ can conjure up. Then of course there is playmate, initially linked for me with childhood innocence. And soulmate with its promise of being deeply understood and connected. But in its usual utterance, mate feels a million miles from soulmate. 
Intonation is everything.‘Mate’ uttered casually is ‘soulmate’ marked down on the High Street for final clearance.  However ‘mate’ spoken in a different way altogether may conjure up feelings of helpmate, a word that is derived from Helpmeet.
‘The old English phrase: help meet, has been turned into the word helpmate.  She was created to be a helper for the man.  She was created to be his helpmate in the garden – to assist him in everything.  The woman was meant to be an equal to her man.

You’ve probably heard the illustration that Eve was made not from Adam’s feet so that she would be beneath him and not from his head so that she would be above him, but from a rib from his side so that she would be equal to him.  She was a helpmate for him…

Popular culture seems to have lost this Helpmate ideal and instead treats women as Playmates.  She is treated as a sex toy, a servant, or as a slave.  The woman is no longer equal to her man.’

(Helpmate not Playmate – Women of the Bible 1, Jeff Carter 2003)

And then there is ‘checkmate’ in chess, a complex strategy game where you’ve got to the final move – and there isn’t one. There’s no way out. You’re a winner or a loser.

Chess, I discovered is derived from the ancient Indian game of Chaturanga, a Sanskrit word meaning a symbol of the unconscious and representing something that lives both in and out of the water, being part of two realms. 

Wikipedia defines ‘checkmate’ as follows:

‘Checkmate (frequently shortened to mate) is a situation in chess (and in other boardgames of the chaturanga family) in which one player’s king is threated with capture (in check) and there is no way to meet that threat. Or, simply put, the king is under direct attack and cannot avoid being captured. Delivering checkmate is the ultimate goal in chess: a player who is checkmated loses the game. In normal chess the king is never actually captured – the game ends as soon as the king is checkmated because checkmate leaves the defensive player with no legal moves. In practice, most players resign an inevitably lost game before being checkmated. It is considered bad etiquette to continue playing in a completely hopeless position.’

Where does one go after ‘mate’? Perhaps it is the feeling of being ‘blanked’ and ‘checked’ through the use of the word ‘mate’, the denial of one’s essential feminine Self, that brings out the strong reaction I have, the renewed desire to assert myself as a person and as a woman: ‘Feel my presence!’, ‘I am still here!’

Going deeper into the etymology of mate in more depth (Wikipedia again):

‘It comes from a Persian verb mandan, meaning ‘to remain’, which is cognate with the Latin word manco. It means ‘remained’ in the sense of ‘abandoned’ and the formal translation is ‘surprised’, in the military sense of ‘ambushed’ (not in the sense of ‘astonished’). So the king is in mate when he is ambushed, at a loss, or abandoned to his fate.’

Certainly for me in all three of my examples there was a feeling of being both surprised and feeling my essential Self abandoned in that moment of ‘mate’; and also at a loss.

Have I got it wrong?  Is this all the result of some lingering cultural dissonance, the inner ear of an American who’s been in the UK for several decades but still can’t quite hear an isolated word as it’s intended?  I would be intrigued to hear your responses to the word ‘mate’ and also about other words which have left a deep impression on you.

For me the question is, now that I’ve got a grip on the personal power of ‘mate’ over me, how will I react next time? The latent impressions will still be there, the tendencies may still be triggered, but how will I respond?  Will I defuse that moment of its emotional intensity, noting it and just letting it pass?

This entry was posted in American character, British/English character, connections, friendships, yoga. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The latent impressions of words (or, ‘Please don’t call me mate!’)

  1. Michael says:

    A man calling a lady ”mate” is either weird or an error(i.e. if someone’ does not have English as their first language).

    Workers call men ”mate”. In the same way they call women either ”miss or mrs”-as in ”Oi Mrs !”

    Gentlemen do not call a lady ”mate”.

    Your experiences were in part weird.

    • karin says:

      Well, I don’t agree with all of this Michael, (not sure I know gentlemen or ladies for example), but I do feel we’re partly on the same wave length! I think it is just that I am not used to my friends, male or female, calling me ‘mate’ – but it could just be a cultural difference. Interesting to read your views. And of course my experiences were weird (only in part?), they often are!

  2. Dody Jane says:

    Maybe I have worked in a mostly male world for too long, but I think I would feel almost thrilled if I had been called ‘mate’ by a male friend. Naturally, this would not happen here in the US of A, but I liken it to being considered to be “one of the guys.”

    The word ‘guy’ has the same kind of implications here, although not quite as intimate. I come from a part of the world where we say “hey, you guys.” Now, I live where the accepted form of “hey, you guys,” is ‘Hey, y’all.” I have never, ever, ever been able to say ‘y’all.” It sounds so fake and insincere coming from me. But, ‘you guys” flows trippingly off my tongue. When I am included by a male friend in a “hey, you guys,” I feel so INCLUDED (I have a quite a few co-workers who are transplanted to the south as well.)

    So, because of my inability to say ‘y’all,’ I completely understand where you are coming from. But, I also think I would have embraced “mate” as a term of endearment. Does any of this make sense? I am writing quickly, on the fly and not proof reading!

    You joined Face Book??? I opened an Etsy shop to satisfy creative needs and make ends meet at the same time, so I have neglected FB terribly!

    • karin says:

      Hi Dody Jane – I had also felt mate could be a TOE, which makes me happier with it. So much depends on tone. Everything you say makes sense to me!

      Regarding ‘guys’ – I grew up with ‘ you guys’ and it has a totally different feel than ‘mate’ for me – but that could be just cultural dissonance. ‘You guys’ is just a phrase kids use and then goes on into adulthood. It is really bland to me but as you say feels inclusive. ‘Y’all’ also sounds really affected to me, but I know it’s genuine for those who grow up with it. It sounds nicer to me than ‘mate’, maybe the drawl that does it. I would say that both ‘you guys’ and ‘y’all’ are gender-neutral through common usage, and inclusive, which gives them a different feel than ‘mate’ which is generally gender-specific – male!

      Language is a weird thing but I do think it is unusual for a woman to be called ‘mate’ – I wait to be corrected!

      Yes, I’m on FB – went on there reluctantly, kicking and screaming when someone moved their blog on there despite protests from many readers…and after I signed up, they stopped writing! It happens…I miss yours too. I hope you are happy and managing to make ends meet.

  3. Chris says:

    I agree with all three of you guys – which is nice.

    ‘Guys’ I use a lot when talking to a mixed group. It’s a tad American for me (sorry girls!) but I feel totally comfortable with it and haven’t found a better informal inclusive address. Oddly enough I do occasionally use ‘y’all’ in what I fondly believe is a Southern drawl – but only when I know and am completely at ease with every member of the group I’m speaking to.

    I hate to be called ‘mate’ and rarely am. It always jars. Actually it’s worse than that – it affronts and offends me. I’ve never heard a woman use the word in greeting form. For me that’s a word for men to use to other men when they want to express closeness to someone they see as belonging to their peer group or when they want to close a perceived gap in social status between them and the person they are talking to. Michael is right. Gentlemen don’t use ‘mate’ as a form of address.

    • karin says:

      Thanks Chris. Glad to have your stamp of non-approval. It was interesting though to trace the journey of the word, both personally and objectively – I now feel more indifferent to it.

  4. Chris says:

    Re-reading, Karin, I note your dislike of ‘partner’. This has its proper place in e.g. business partnerships etc but I really don’t like it when it means ‘spouse in all but the legal and religious contexts’. But I haven’t found a better. Have you?

    • karin says:

      Well, Chris, perhaps you prefer the more comprehensive description ‘life partner’ or ‘life companion’? Joking aside, no, I have not found another description. I don’t like labels for relationships generally.

  5. Madhu Sameer says:

    I lived in Australia for a few years. Some of the friends from there still call me mate – everyone is a mate in Australia (pronounced as mait).

    I always flinch !!!


    • karin says:

      Oh good – I’m glad you flinch too. It is interesting to gauge the range of reactions. A woman I know last night was defending it, and another thought it could be ‘cosy’. I guess so. I’ve got over my aversion to it, now it’s just another word…

  6. I really appreciated your article which articulates very well the thoughts and emotions that I feel when being referred to as ‘mate’, particularly by a guy that I am really fond of. Does it mean I have been friendzoned? Time will tell.

  7. ‘Mate’ is simply a term of connection, usually but not always friendly, almost always between men, and not usually between people who are close friends. It can often be a euphemism, to improve on expressions such as as in ‘Look here, shitface’. I don’t know anyone who thinks of himself as a component of a matery. I have heard women use it to other women, but rarely, though Wikipedia says this is developin gin the UK and Stralia. I don’t recall having used it to women (unless it was inadvertently I who used it to you, Karin). I did sort of use it as the concluding sentence in an essay in a rather difficult OU philosophy exam 3/4 years ago, viz. “That’s what I think anyway, matey”. However, I had been enlarging somewhat on the theory of panpsychism, and felt that a bit of cheerfulness was in order.
    In the good old days, some of us habitually called each other ‘comrade’, which often had a glint of dagger to it. .
    In some parts of the world, blokes call each other ‘sir’. When this happens I have to say ‘Don’t call me sir: I haven’t called anyone sir since I was 14’. As for ‘squire’, that really makes the knuckles tingle.
    I don’t like the epithets ‘love’, ‘ducks’ and ‘darling’, typically used by females in certain provinces, or ‘my lover’, which they say in some curious corners of the West Country. These terms are particularly iffy when used by men. Fiona once trashed a financial adviser when he called her ‘darling’. Mind you, he was what i correctly called a ‘git’.
    Finally, there was a BBC radio comedy programme back in the 60s or 70s in which some characters routinely called each other ‘mate’, and where women were involved they stumbled into ‘madam mate’. Can’t remember the name of the programme, but I fear it may come back to me.
    Regards, Howard S. ““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““

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