Mole

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OED lists no fewer than ten nouns spelled like this. AWE lists here those in common current use, followed by those that may occur in various academic subjects. (There are also two rare verbs 'to mole', one connected with the animal meaning either 'to get rid of moles [e.g. from a lawn]' or 'to burrow like mole', and the other, unly used in the passive meaning 'to stain [e.g. laundry]'.

  • A mole is a discoloured blemish, "specifically] a benign, pigmented, raised or flat lesion consisting of melanocytes, present at or soon after birth" (OED, which also cites J. Green Dis[eases of the] Skin (1835), 335 "A small mole upon the cheek is sometimes held rather as a heightener of female beauty than otherwise." (These were called 'beauty spots' in the past, and from the mid-seventeenth century for about 150 years were reproduced cosmetically as little black patches.) It originally meant a blemish on anything, for example rust stains ('iron-mould') on laundry. Figuratively it used to be used of any stain, for example on a reputation, or in a character, as in Hamlet(I iv 23-5):
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth—wherein they are not guilty...
  • A mole can also be a mammal. Moles live underground in tunnels. They mostly eat earthworms which they catch underground and store iin . They dig tunnels, throwing out spoil-heaps of fine soil known as molehills, which are sources of fertility to gardeners when dug up, although regarded as a pest on lawns.The common, or European, Mole Talpa europaea, which has fine black fur, strong forelimbs for digging, and is nearly blind, is well-known in English literature, particularly for children, where the Mole is a central character in Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows (1908), and Mouldywarp (an archaic name for the animal) is a character in Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit picture stories, and a mystic and long-lived mole is the central character of Philippa Pearce's The Little Gentleman (2004). (The title is an allusion to the old Jacobite toast to "the little gentleman in black velvet", giving thanks for the death of their enemy William of Orange after he was thrown when his horse stumbled on a mole-hill.).
    • 'Mole' is now a standard figurative term for the sort of 'underground' agent who 'burrows' to 'dig out' secrets, and transfers 'heaps' of information to her/his employer. OED has the following note on the background of this meaning: "Rare before writings on Cold War espionage in the 1970s; earlier uses appear to be isolated and lack the specificity of meaning which the term acquired in such writings. The term was popularized through the novels of ‘John le Carré’ [citing ‘J. le Carré’ Tinker, Tailor viii. 62: "Ivlov's task was to service a mole. A mole is a deep penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism"]; it is generally thought that the world of espionage adopted it from le Carré, rather than vice versa. For a detailed examination of possible origins of the term, see H. Cooper & L. Redlinger Catching Spies (1988) pp.187–248."
        • In the nineteenth century, its burrowing nature led to mole being used as a slang term for 'penis'. (A vagina was a 'mole-catcher', otherwise then a pest controller, and now a counter-espionage agent.)
    • To zoologists, the name mole has also been given to
      • several species of fish.
    • The common mole was so well-known to British naturalists that its name has also been used by analogy for other species, some not at all directly related, such as the marsupial moles (Notoryctes sp.) of Australia, and various species of mole-rat.
  • In the kitchen, mole is a Mexican sauce made from peppery spices and chocolate. (The root is mo:lli, meaning 'broth', soup', 'sauce', in the Native American language Nahuatl, which also gives us guacamole, from Nahuatl ahuacatl, 'avocado' + molli.
  • In the workshop, mole is a colloquial clipping of mole-wrench': the original name for a self-locking gripping tool made by M. K. Mole and Son of Birmingham and designed by its managing director, Thomas Coughtrie (1917-1908). Basically, a mole wrench is a pair of pliers that can be adjusted and left, without human input, to maintain a firm grip on something.
  • To students of (mostly maritime) history, coastal building and geographical features, a mole is an obsolete word for a breakwater, jetty or pier: a massive structure on the sea-bed extending above the surface of the water, usually with one end on shore, to provide shelter for shipping moored within, against the force of waves and wind, or sometimes to protect a beach from erosion. The Mole at Zeebrugge was a key part of the Raid by the Royal Navy in 1918 to deny the port to the Germans: it was the focus of the infantry attack.
    • This is derived from the Latin mōlÄ“s, which meant "shapeless, huge, heavy mass, huge bulk" (Lewis and Short), as well as the 'breakwater, jetty or pier' which became its meaning in English.
    • The general meaning of 'mass' was common in English until the start of the eighteenth century, and has been adapted by chemists since the end of the 19th century to have a much more precise meaning:
  • To students of chemistry and other physical sciences, a mole is now a unit of measurement in the SI (abbreviated mol, defined as "the amount of substance of a system which contains as many elementary entities as there are atoms in 0.012 kilogram of carbon-12. When the mole is used, the elementary entities must be specified and may be atoms, molecules, ions, electrons, other particles, or specified groups of such particles" (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry). In one mole, there are 6.022 x 1023 atoms. (There are 6.022 x 1023 atoms of carbon in 12 grams of carbon-12; 6.022 x 1023 is known as the Avogrado constant, or, as a pure number with no specific units, 'Avogadro's Number'. It has the symbol N.)
    • This sense of mole was originally defined as "the amount of any particular substance having a mass in grams numerically the same as its molecular or atomic weight", which equates to the same. The quantity has also been expressed as 'gram-molecule'.
Etymological note: The abbreviation Mol was derived from the German Molekül, 'molecule' (itself derived from mole in the sense of 'mass' and -cule. 'very small') at a time (18983) when German chemistry was at the forefront of research. In German, mol is the full word. When it was adopted in English, the silent '-e' was added to maintain a consistency in pronunciation. The adjective meaning 'to do with a mole' is molar, as a molar solution is one containing one mole of a substance in each litre of the solution.
  • To linguists, Mole can be an older transliteration of the name of a language spoken by the Mossi people of the Voltaic region of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). {{OED]] prefers to call it Mooré (sometimes spelled Moore, More and Moré); Crystal 1987 prefers to call the language Mossi. It is member of the Gur group of the Niger-Congo language family, and is spoken by around 4,000,000 people.
  • In medical science, a mole is also an abnormal growth in a uterus, usually resulting from the death of an (unborn) fetus. This sense has the adjectiove molar.
  • In the history of ancient Rome, a mole is the English translation of Latin mola, 'a salt-cake' made of spelt and salt, scattered on sacrificial victims.