meaning and origin of ‘does your mother know you’re out?’

The phrase does your mother know you’re out? is a mocking or condescending question addressed to a person whose behaviour is regarded as puerile or inappropriate.

This phrase may be of Irish-English origin, since the earliest occurrences that I have found are from a comedy by an Irish playwright and from Irish newspapers. (There is uncertainty over the below-quoted poem, its author being unknown.)

1: The earliest instance of does your mother know you’re out? is from The Queer Subject. A farce, in One Act (London: Chapman and Hall, 1837), by the Irish playwright Joseph Stirling Coyne (1803-1868)—this play was first performed at the Theatre Royal Adelphi, London, in November 1836:

Markham. […] Ah, here’s a table, and here’s—what?—a sack—a thought strikes me, I’ll get into it […]—I must lie still (draws the sack over his head and stretches himself on the table.) Enter Bill Mattock, with a bottle in one hand, and part of a fowl in the other, L. S. E. [= Left Second Entrance]
Bill. […] Here’s jolly good luck (drinks) I wish I could find the table now. I’d take another stretch on it, for I find an uncommon dizziness coming over me; but that’s according to the (hip)—torp—torpitude—(hip)—really this is very pretty port (drinks) I’m confident it is,—(hip),—now I have the table, where’s my sack? (lays his hand on Mark,) Who are you? does your mother know your’e [sic] out? you’d better mizzle, my chap—what! eh! blow me, if this arn’t another subject! I wonder who raised him—(hip)—that’s no reason though that he should have my place, come along my covey there’s plenty of room on the floor for you, there’s a nice spot under the table for you (he lays him under the table.)

2: The second-earliest occurrence of does your mother know you’re out? is from Saunders’s News-Letter, and Daily Advertiser (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Tuesday 10th October 1837:

SESSIONS COURT—Yesterday.
DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW YOU’RE OUT?

A countryman named Edward Tollins appeared as prosecutor in a charge of robbery. He was one of those innocent Connaught men, who, from want of experience and discretion are easily imposed upon, particularly by the fallen daughters of our general mother. The prisoner rejoiced in the name of Frances M‘Cabe.
The prosecutor stated that he had returned from England, where he had been for ten weeks during the harvest, and that he had in his possession twenty sovereigns, and 9s. 6d. in silver. He unfortunately met the prisoner in the street the other night, and she accosted him with, “Does your mother know you’re out.” Being anxious to understand why a stranger should take such an interest in his filial conduct, he stopped to speak to her, but instead of admonishing him to return home and ask “leave” to go out next time; she thrust her hand into his pocket and took away his money.
The Recorder asked the prosecutor how much was stolen from him;
The prosecutor then counted his sovereigns upon the green cloth in a most methodical manner, spreading them out at a distance from each other, so as to enable his arithmetical abilities to calculate with greater accuracy the remnant of his treasure. In about five minutes, with the quickness of “a calculating phenomenon,” he informed the court that 6l. 9s. 6d. had been stolen from him, thus making the recovered amount to be 14 sovereigns.
A bundle, containing a plaid cloak, was here produced, which had been purchased by the prisoner with a portion of the prosecutor’s money.
The Recorder told him that he should take the cloak home with him, and that he would also be allowed one pound to make up in some degree for his loss.
The prisoner was found guilty, and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.

3: The phrase occurs as the title and as a line of an unsigned poem—followed by its French version—published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (London: James Fraser) of December 1837:

Does your Mother know you’re out?

I.

Young Adèle, upon the green,
Mourned in tears her unkind swain;
Scarcely was the maid sixteen —
Spring-time of that gentle pain!
Wanton Cupid danced around,
From flower to flower, upon the ground;
When, laughingly, the maid spoke out —
Does your mother know you’re out?

II.

The little god — malicious thing! —
Lanched [sic] an arrow from his bow,
Then spread wide each silver wing,
And balanced in the air to go.
“Cruel!” she cried, as Cupid rose:
“Ah, me! what have you been about?”
“No matter what my mother knows —
You know pretty well I’m out!”

I.

Belle Adèle, sur vert gazon,
Pleurait son absent amant ;
A peine avoit elle seize ans —
C’est d’amour le beau printemps !
Autour d’elle le dieu d’amour,
Voltigeait de fleur en fleur ;
De ses avances le fille s’en rit —
“Ta mère, sait elle que t’es sorti ?”

II.

Le petit dieu — mauvais sujet ! —
Lance une flèche dedans le cœur,
Deployé ses ailes argentes,
Et s’enfuit d’elle, tout à l’heure !
“Pourquoi m’as-tu fait pleurer ?
Mauvais sujet ! qu’as-tu fait ?”
“N’importe que sait ma mère,” lui dit,
“Tu bien sais que suis sorti !”

In the Morning Advertiser (London, England) of Monday 4th December 1837, the review of this issue of Fraser’s Magazine specified that does your mother know you’re out? was a “popular and elegant” phrase—Fraser’s Magazine had also published All round my Hat!, a poem probably written by the same author:

In a playful vein we have two pieces of verse (English and French) on the popular and elegant sayings, “Does your mother know you’re out” and “All round my hat.” It is curious to see what a little versatility of genius may do with subjects the most trifling and humble; where nothing exists it is said nothing can be found—here we have the remark disproved.

4: The meaning of does your mother know you’re out? is obscure in the following from The Pilot (Dublin, County Dublin Ireland) of Monday 11th December 1837:

Private Correspondence.
(From our occasional correspondent.)

London, Saturday, December 9, 1837.
[…]
I have much more to say, but I have not yet acquired the art of “annihilating time and space,” and the postman’s bell is a knell that cuts short the thread of the most interesting communication. I, however, must add a few words upon the late debates in the House of Commons. Colonel Verner, who is now known as Colonel O’Bluster, while the other hero, Colonel Conolly, is distinguished by the soubriquet of “The Muff,” had his field-day, and was laughed out of the field with a vengeance. The battle of the Diamond bids fairly to take the place of “Does your mother know you’re out?” The next best thing was the exhibition of D’Israeli. Imagine all that was comical and grotesque, and you have the portrait of poor Ben, sometime Radical, now raving Tory.

5: Finally, the following is from The Morning Register (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Tuesday 26th December 1837:

POLICE INTELLIGENCE—Saturday.

Henry-street.—A First Visit to the Metropolis.—An inexperienced looking countryman, who gave his name as Egan, brought two ladies of the pavé before the bench, to answer a charge of having robbed him under the following circumstances:—
Egan stated that on the previous day he left his native place, Moate, in the county Westmeath, and came up by the coach, which arrives in Dublin at ten o’clock at night. He had been several days preparing for the journey, and with tears in his eyes, bid his poor mother farewell. He was so effected by grief, and the night was so cold, he took a couple of glasses of spirits on the road. When the coach arrived at the bridge opposite Church-street, he got down, and inquired for Pilllane, where a relation of his lived. He was walking up by the Four Courts with his bundle in his hand, when the two ladies present followed him, and said to him, “Does your mother know you’re out?” At the mention of the name of his poor mother the tears came in his eyes, and he said—What do you know about my mother? To make the story short they pretended that they knew every thing about him and his mother, and having a drop in his head, he went into a public-house to treat them, when, after drinking some punch, one of them took his bundle, which was beside him, and ran away with it. He ran out after her, and pursued her down the quay. She met a fellow to whom she gave it, and who was out of sight in a moment. The watchmen took her into custody; but it was no use, his bundle was gone.
Magistrate—You acted a very foolish part; sure you might know what these women were.
Complainant—Oh, your worship, it was my first visit to the metropolis; and if I had my bundle, I’d go home again and never put my foot into Dublin again.
The magistrates asked the two women what they had to say to the charge, when one of them replied, “Nothing, your worship, only that I took the bundle, and I’ll go merrily to Newgate. I’m tired of the streets.”
They were both committed to stand their trial; but complainant said it was impossible he could stay in town to prosecute, all his money and clothes were gone.

The phrase soon became both widespread and popular; on Tuesday 19th November 1839, the Maidstone Gazette and Kentish Courier; Or, General Advertiser for Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex (Maidstone, Kent, England) remarked:

Does your mother know you are out?” […] is heard one hundred times a day, in every town in which there is a score of lads.

The Windsor and Eton Express, Berks, Bucks, and Middlesex Journal, and West Surrey Gazette (Windsor, Berkshire, England) of Saturday 18th July 1840 explained in which spirit the phrase was publicly used:

Does your Mother know you’re out?”—Persons progressing through the streets of this vast metropolis have frequently the question put to them, as to whether their maternal parent is cognisant of the fact of their being from home; in other instances they evince a solicitude respecting the good lady’s health, by exclaiming “How’s your mother.” Now these questions, kind as they may appear in a literal sense, are invariably construed into an insult. The origin of making these inquiries, in the spirit in which they are made, would perhaps be as difficult to discover as it would to ascertain the foundation and the allusion intended to be conveyed by such phrases as “Flare up,” “Who are you?” “There he goes with his eye out,” and other by-gone cant sayings. The fact is, the lower class of cockneys must have some real or imaginary saying of an insulting nature to fling at those they wish to ridicule, and “Does your mother know you’re out?” serves the purpose as well as anything else; indeed, it often proves vastly annoying […].

The following from the Windsor and Eton Express, Berks, Bucks, and Middlesex Journal, and West Surrey Gazette (Windsor, Berkshire, England) of Saturday 12th January 1839 satirises the folk etymologies based on academic knowledge and dissociated from the circumstances in which words and phrases originate:

From Philosopher Citizen Muddlepate to Professor Noodleton.
My Dear Professor—Knowing your devotion to those learned studies which have made the name of Noodleton universal throughout the known world, I take the liberty of sending you a few speculations of my own on some of the idioms in the language of our ancestors, which have given rise to so much learned disquisition, and which have been productive of a vast fund of the most subtle and acute criticism.
In his recently-published Encyclopædia, our learned friend, Doctor Muddypole, has devoted 363 pages of that most valuable work in order to prove that the terms, “All my eye,” “Flare-up,” “Does your mother know you’re out?” &c., claim a classic origin, and the learned Doctor has quoted many passages from the Greek and Latin authors, as you well know, to prove it. Now, it does appear to me strange—although I would not for the world be supposed to dissent from the opinions of our learned friend—yet I say it does appear strange to me that there should be no traces of the use of these terms till the early part of the nineteenth century, when we discover them variously used. […]
[…] In regard to the term “Does your mother know you’re out?” great obscurity exists. Dr. Muddypole thinks it must have originated at the time when the Roman maidens were given as hostages to Porsenna, when the natural enquiry among the young ladies would have been “Does your mother know you’re out?” I am rather inclined to think it was used indiscriminately towards the sexes, as we certainly find it used towards males. Was it not some respectful allusion to the author of our being—a delicate compliment to parental watchfulness which allows one to “get out?” We know that by a sect of religionists, called Catholics, of that period great rigour was at times exercised towards females—the permission of a mother in that case would be valuable—and how natural, how delicate would be the enquiry “Does your mother know you’re out?” I have told you, my dear Professor, that I have discovered traces of much beauty in the esteemed barbarous language of our ancestors—they had evidently a sense of the sublime and beautiful—the tender virtues to some extent were cultivated by them. These we can borrow, and I certainly shall transfer into my vocabulary this so-pathetically-used and beautiful enquiry; so you must not be surprised, my dear Professor, if at times I should begin my epistles to you by enquiring in the language of old “Does your mother know you’re out?

 

This advertisement appeared in The Entr’acte and Limelight (London, England) of Saturday 31st January 1880:

'does your mother know you're out' - The Entr’acte and Limelight (London, England) - 31 January 1880

DEUTSCHER, DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW YOU’RE OUT?
FRED HARRINGTON,
ANGLO DUTCH AND TYROLEAN
DOUBLE VOICED VOCALIST AND COMEDIAN.
GAIETY, MANCHESTER,
Every Evening
LONDON, August 2nd.
                              Sole Agent—Charles Roberts.

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