Look at this beautiful little cube. Its lines are almost clean; there are just a few irregularities. It could be a thing of beauty or a thing of use.
Or it could be an irritation. Those sharp edges, digging into soft, tender surfaces. Put it in the wrong place and it can be quite uncomfortable. It is small, but it may seem rather larger in contact with sensitive parts. It can be the sort of thing you may want protection from.
Let us call it a mote.
Mote is a word you may or might not be familiar with. If you are, it is likely from the King James Bible – Matthew 7:3, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” – or from some cultural reference to that passage, such as the science fiction novel The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
Which does not exactly tell you what a mote is. It’s something that gets into your eye, yes, but… OK, it’s a speck of dust, a grain of sand, some tiny but noticeable particle. The point Jesus is making in the famous line – typically translated in more modern versions with speck – is that one ought not to counsel others on their small faults when one has much larger ones of one’s own (a beam – or, in some modern versions, a log!).
Is mote related to mite? They’re both small things, but it is not, though they both come from old Germanic words. Mote seems like a word for a larger thing, though, doesn’t it? That o tends to go with big, round, heavy things, while i is more common with small things (this isn’t universal, of course, but it’s enough of a tendency that we tend to form expectations of unfamiliar words on this basis). There is a larger thing called a mote: a mound, hill, embankment, or similar natural feature or man-made fortification; the word comes from Latin mota. It just happens that the ‘fortification’ sense was extended to a ditch, sometimes filled with water, and that version is now respelled as moat. It sounds the same, of course. Such is English; so be it. So mote it be.
That’s the other at least modestly current mote: an auxiliary verb meaning ‘may, be permitted to, have the opportunity to’. It has a more archaic and lofty flavour now than may, and it also has fewer uses. “So may it be” or “It may be so” can express doubt or evaluation; “Let it be so” is effectively a third-person imperative. “So mote it be” is (especially in some ceremonial uses, for example in Freemasonry) an equivalent for Amen (which, by the way, does not actually mean ‘OK, that’s the end’). “As mote be” – for example, in “As wicked a person as mote be” – means ‘as could exist’. The Germanic root has grown into Dutch moeten and German müssen, which translate back into English as ‘must’: a command. But mote is a permission, a possibility. Quite the opposite of the obstacle or irritant presented by the other two senses.
Which takes us back to our pretty little cube, a thing of beauty or irritation, of help or harm. How small is it? I have nudged a Canadian nickel (5-cent piece, for my international readers) next to it for comparison:
And yet if you get that in your eye, it could hurt.
Briefly. This cube is a grain of not sand but salt: a good thing as long as it is in the right place and the right quantity. Put it in a moist place such as your eye and it will dissolve soon enough and run away in tears.
So mote it be.