Summer book club: Mother tongue

Jenni Nuttall’s book Mother Tongue, the surprising history of women’s words, is a rich history of the words that we use to describe women and their lives and why these matter.


Mother Tongue is described on the front cover as “a gem of a book” by author Kate Mosse. And a gem it is – so richly layered, not just commenting on the evolution of English words about women over time, but on why the language of the past matters today; so steeped in research and informative, yet easily accessible, I learned something new on each page and often many new things.

It’s a book that you read and then need to re-read in order to absorb all the stories and anecdotes and it shows how much more there is to know about the past and how it has shaped the present.  Many of the words used “started out in the service of sexist theories of women’s supposed inferiority” and, passed down the centuries so we rarely reflect on their meanings, they embed those ideas in our everyday exchanges. But it’s not all negative. Through excavating the past, we can find something new too. As its author, Oxford academic Dr Jenni Nuttall says: “In old words, we can find surprising new thoughts about our bodies’ capacities for desire, for pregnancy and for much, much more.”

Mother Tongue is also a passionate defence of women’s right to own the language that is used to describe them and, as such, it tentatively steps into today’s debates about gender. While in the foreword Nuttall says that some of the words that describe women are ones “we share with transgender and non-binary people who wouldn’t classify themselves as women” and that “each individual takes what they need from the common word-stock”, in the last part, After words, she talks about the need to be on our guard about language, making reference not just to women speaking out but to infighting about the ‘circumlocutions’ for women such as ‘those who menstruate’ which “avoid making broader observations about what generally [but not always] unites those in question”. Speaking about the tendency these days to disapprove and censor certain language and to silence some women, she writes: “It seems regressive to stifle women’s words, however progressive the motivation. Each woman must have the terms of her choosing.”

What matters for Nuttall is that women are able to tell their stories and in that she welcomes the recent outpouring of women talking about experiences such as menstruation, childbirth, menopause and sexual violence.

From words for female anatomy to the language of feminism

The book covers everything from words for female anatomy, sexuality and menstrual language to words for ages and stages, naming male violence and finding feminism’s vocabulary.

The chapter on female anatomy goes all the way back to how we distinguish male and female anatomy. Nuttall says the scientific Latin words that we know today such as vulva and vagina, which can distance us from what they denote, were in fact late in being used in English literature. She talks too of the general words used to describe females in early history such as womankind. She discusses how such language has been used to subjugate women [‘there is no single kind of woman’], but how it also recognises both our similarities and differences. The word sex, she says, was more narrowly focused on reproduction, based on observations of typical differences between men and women and knowledge of how animals and plants reproduce. The categorisation of humans on the basis of sex was never doubted, she adds.

The chapter on maternity has some surprising revelations about attitudes towards things like pregnancy loss and sterility, which were more sympathetic than we might think. Nuttall talks of the long struggle between book learning and practical experience when it comes to childbirth, which we still see today in the use of medical words such a contraction and dilation compared to more vernacular, ‘mysterious’ terms such as waters breaking and crowning. This can be seen in the split between those who overmedicalise childbirth and those who idolise ‘natural’ birth, she says. The first English books discussing childbirth were more practical with a realisation that some births are easier and some harder – many, of course, resulted in the death of the mother. Nuttall reflects that women today need to find new words to describe their birth experiences and tell their birth stories so they can reclaim them.

In the chapter on nursing, Nuttall talks about the evolution of what it means to be a mother. In medieval times mothering just referred to reproduction. Mothers were not necessarily expected to be ‘a good mum’ since mothers didn’t always look after their children in their early years. It was not in fact until the mid-19th century that to mother meant “to raise children in some particularly motherlike way”. Yet for most of our history the work of caring has predominantly been seen as women’s work.

One of the most interesting chapters is on women at work, with the Victorian and Edwardian withdrawal of privileged women from paid work outside the home being more of a historical blip than the norm. Yet women have traditionally done less well paid work with less status, with men dominating the nouns and women’s work more likely to be captured by verbs, “doing not being”.  Nuttall marvels in the work of economic historians who have adopted ingenious tactics to find out more about women’s work in the middle ages, given it was so often so low status that it was barely recorded. Jane Whittle and Mark Hailwood have, for example, analysed the work women said they were doing when events occurred which they had to testify about in court. Their studies show clearly the sex segregation between jobs, but also that women were involved in every part of the economy.

Today, says Nuttall, we have thrown off some of their past invisibility, but we still face our own barriers, such as childcare costs.

Naming our experiences

Other chapters cover the origins of the kind of negative words we use about middle-aged women, including mumsy, frumpy and dowdy. Nuttall says the language about the different ages and stages of womanhood shows a preponderance of different words about girls [because of their appearance and fertility] and not enough words about older women, with those that do exist – like ‘hags’ and ‘witches’ – being mainly negative. Once again, she says there is room for more new words about those later stages so that we are not condemned to life as ‘everlasting children’. The chapter on violence shows the origins of rape culture in the language of ravishment and seduction which disguise and obscure the reality of that violence.

The book ends with a chapter on ‘finding feminism’s vocabulary’.  While the language of feminism has come relatively recently, Nuttall explores the origins and evolution of words such as patriarchy and gender to describe social norms. After all, you can’t contest something that you don’t have the words to describe.

Every page of the book is packed with examples from early history to the present day, from academic work to anecdotes from the author’s own personal experience. What is particularly striking, though, is how little we learn about women’s history and about why we are in the position we are now.

At one point Nuttall remarks: “Searching for women’s work in the language of the past is like opening the many little doors and drawers of an antique cabinet or bureau. Some drawers are almost empty: women’s work is under-reported or not easily sayable in certain forms of words. But behind the right doors, thanks to inventive historical research, women’s past labours are there to be rediscovered.”

Her book brings that research into the light and adds a new dimension through its focus on language. As such, words act in a way as a kind of recent fossil record of an underrepresented past which can help us understand the present better.

*Mother Tongue:  the surprising history of women’s words by Jenni Nuttall is published by Virago.

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