Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words by Jenni Nuttall

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Review by Liz Dexter

The history of women’s words, it turns out, is full of surprises, of things which aren’t necessarily what you’d expect. Even our basics have unfamiliar beginnings.

Jenni Nuttall is an academic in medieval literature at the University of Oxford and also has a Master’s in Creative writing. This is her first book for the general reader and her expertise in medieval matters and language and her writing ability both stand her in good stead to be an excellent guide through the tangles of linguistics and the words we use about women. She also brings in conversations with her teenage daughter and the language she would like women to know about, and uses a good, approachable style suitable for both those who know a bit and those who know very little about what she’s writing about. 

Inspired by her students’ questions at work and her daughter’s at home, knowing some answers from her own learning and having to look others up, she sets out to investigate the oldest traces of words under a series of themes – the body, menstruation, sex, the womb and childbirth, caring, work, ages and naming male violence – sometimes able to go back to Old English (or even the Indo-European languages scholars have patched together from before our languages branched off from one another), sometimes reaching the Victorians before she finds a first useful usage (and even up to the ultra-modern Unicode Consortium emoji that can be used to symbolise menstruation). She suspects that there might be lost words for a wider range of things than we have now, and finds that is the case – both words she’s sad to have lost and some she’s more glad about.

After a quick survey of the suppression of earthy, rich terms for women’s bodies and actions in the Victorian era, imposed by men who professionalised their own interactions with women, and an explanation of how many things we might want words for now – calling out sexism, reclaiming words for ourselves – and quickly noting there are currently a variety of body-centred words to maintain inclusivity, we’re off into her categories, looking at those ancient and more modern words for body parts first of all then delving into sex and reproduction but also caring, jobs, and at the end, words for “custom and tyranny” and the vocabulary of feminism. 

There’s plenty to learn here – do the words woman and womb come from the same root? How have perceptions of words for young women and older women changed as misogyny has appropriated them? – and it’s put to the reader approachably. Where Nuttall quotes older language that might not be understood, she simply glosses it immediately afterwards, meaning if you happen to be familiar with Middle English, etc., you can glide along and pick up the narrative; if you don’t, you have the translation right there without having to forage in a footnote. She also works in little amusing cultural references to pop songs and the like which raise a smile while ensuring she looks at intersectional issues around race and class.

Nuttall is an engaging companion through these words and histories. She’s always willing to hold her hands up to her own errors, for example when she realises that her disliked term Mrs was previously a word of respect for a businesswoman or other woman of high standing and practicality, rather than just a woman who was married. She also unpicks cultural myths, such as the idea that wise women were targeted by witch-hunters, which apparently has been found not to be true and reminds us we need to keep flexible in our thinking and reading. 

A lovely nod to her editors in the acknowledgements rounds off this excellent book, looking for a suitable collective term for them. There are full endnotes and will be an index, too (I had a proof copy).

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Liz Dexter used to be a married Ms but got tired of the effort at some point. She still calls herself a feminist, however. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Jenni Nuttall, Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words (Virago, 2023) ‎ 978- 0349015309, 296 pp., hardback.

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1 comment

  1. Sounds brilliant Liz – thank you for highlighting this one!

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