The doll that the doll that the doll that the doll that the doll that the doll that the doll contains contains contains contains contains contains contains another doll.
Mamma mia! That is one mother of a sentence. And this is one little mother of a word. A mommy of a word, in fact, since if you go through all the linguistic layers that’s the translation of it – or, for Brits, a mummy, which is doubly suitable because the other kind of mummy has a body inside a thing inside a thing inside a thing. You see, my mother is a real doll, and your mother may be a real doll too, but this mommy is really a real doll. Or, rather, several real dolls, one inside another.
You’ve seen them, I’m sure, those Russian dolls. They look like a woman in traditional dress, and if you twist the top and bottom apart there’s another smaller one inside, and inside that is another, and so on. There is, at last, a smallest one in the middle that doesn’t open to show another, but that’s just due to practical limitations. Theoretically it could be mommies all the way down, or at least down to the molecular level.
There are many things in the world that resemble this sort of thing. Ownership structures of tax-dodge companies, for instance, and money-laundering schemes, and for that matter the entire banking and credit system too. Onions, and to some extent peonies. Reality itself, in many models, including the one in The Matrix, and, if you’ve seen Inception, some dream structures – your mother was there at your conception, but this matryoshka is there at inception. Sentences, as we have seen. And some words, too. Consider a portmanteau word that is made with another portmanteau word, as for example fugxury.
I’m sure matryoshka would get used more if it were easier for English tongues to get around. It is a bit large and sloshy, but it’s also actually shorter than we want to say it: it’s really three syllables, not four. Well, I don’t expect Anglophones to manage “tryo” as one syllable (/trʲɵ/ in the original Russian), but that’s how it’s made: матрёшка (don’t you like the little crown on the e? That makes it not e but “yaw” or “yuh”) is a diminutive form (the shka шка is a standard diminutive ending [like English -y or -ette], as for instance on babushka, ‘granny’) of Матрёна, which is a Russian woman’s name that comes from Latin matrona, which means ‘matron’ and comes from mater ‘mother’.
So there it is. Once you get down through the layers, you get a little mother at the inception. The word that the word that the word that the word contains contains contains contains another. In the beginning and end is the word.