One of the most versatile words in many languages is "mother", but there is probably no language in which it is more versatile than in Spanish. To a person who is learning Spanish but doesn't know slang, one could easy walk away from a conversation wondering why people talk about their mothers so much. However a long-time speaker of Spanish could hear the same conversation and realize that they never mentioned a mother the whole time.
How is that possible? It's possible because the fluent speaker understands the many meanings of madre...
First we'll look at some interesting, even creative, but relatively non-offensive ways of using madre in Spanish. One common expression we've probably all heard before is madre mía (literally, my mother), meaning something along the lines of "good heavens".
¡Madre mía, qué tarde es!
: Good heavens, it's really late!
You can say something is getting out of control with the phrase salirse de madre, literally "leaving the mother".
Juan se salió de madre.
: Juan really went too far.
In some places, madre can be used like buena gente, to describe a good or kind person.
Es una madre.
: He/she is a good person.
Mother can also be turned into a verb. Madrear is used in some countries to mean "to swear at someone" or "to offend with bad language".
Nunca madreo en frente de me padres.
: I never swear in front of my parents.
And running with that theme of using it to describe swearing, one can also say echar madres (to throw mothers) or decir madres (to say mothers) as a way to describe swearing.
In Mexico and Central America (and among immigrants in the US!) one often hears the phrase ¡Tu madre!, often accompanied by a shaking fist, as an insult. The implication is that what you're saying about that person's mother isn't going to be a compliment.
¡Ay, tu madre, güey!
: Aw, screw you, dude!
A stronger phrase is la madre que te parió (literally, "the mother who gave birth to you"), which expresses extreme anger or indignation.
¡La madre que te parió!
: Son of a bitch!
Another popular phrase is ni madre (literally, "not even mother"), which is used like "no way", or "not a chance", but in a vulgar manner. This isn't something you should say to your boss.
No voy contigo. ¡Ni madre!
: I'm not going with you. Forget it. No way.
When you truly don't care about something, you might say me vale madre. Literally, it means "it's worth a mother to me", but in practice it's far more vulgar.
Ella me vale madre.
: I don't give a damn about her.
All this is just the beginning
I've described several ways of using the word madre, but while this may seem like a lot, it's barely scratching the surface. If you look at the WordReference page for madre, you'll find a long list of forum entries about interesting uses. And if you ask a Spanish-speaking friend, you'll get even more.
While many, perhaps most, of the colloquial uses of this word are rather crude, it's hard to deny its versatility, or the creativeness of the people who use it!
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.