Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words reminds us that patriarchy is not only terrifyingly huge but nightmarishly granular. This spirited, scholarly book marshals a languageful of evidence to prove that our external bodies, actions, and rights are not all that have been colonized by men—so have our words.
Jenni Nuttall’s book belongs in the tradition of feminist takes on the English language including Monique Wittig and Sandy Zerg’s Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary (1970), Rosalie Maggie’s The Nonsexist Wordfinder (1987), and the wicked classic, Mary Daly’s Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1998). But in contrast to the freewheeling approach of these books, Nuttall anchors Mother Tongue in her expertise as an Oxford scholar of medieval literature.
Nuttall’s book is full of enraging illuminations about words we encounter daily. For example, the phrase “to deliver a baby” arose by analogy with the British trading ships of the seventeenth century, “as if giving birth to a baby is just like having a shipping container craned out of your innards.” And those ships traded not only objects, but enslaved people from Africa, including the enslaved women’s future babies. According to Nuttall’s compelling account, this atrocity steered our language towards its current mechanistic, economic model of childbirth, installing the alienating term “reproduction” in place of sweeter words like “procreation” or “generation.”
Elsewhere, Nuttall traces our word “slut” back to an eighteenth-century term for “lowly female servant.” These women had little recourse against sexual abuse and rape at the hands of the wealthy men who employed and controlled them. Hence, Nuttall explains, the modern sense of slut “excuses men’s blushes by redesignating poorer women who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation as women who are notoriously promiscuous.”
To those English speakers who might find such knowledge about the tongue that inhabits our mouths unbearable, Nuttall offers hope of a way out: not by progressing forward, but by circling back to anciently rooted terms from English’s childhood. Our language hides an unclaimed inheritance: juicy, vivid women-centered words that might help repopulate our vocabularies—and our thoughts—with a more empowered perspective. “As women have slowly made progress towards equality,” Nuttall writes,
we’ve paradoxically lost some of the most expressive and eloquent bits of English vocabulary for describing our lives and experiences. Like vintage tools laid out for sale at a flea market, we can pick up these older words, puzzle out their purposes, compare them with today’s language and see if we have any use for them, decorative or practical.
And indeed, Mother Tongue is full of beautiful examples of this lost female-centered word-hoard, particularly around the topics of sex, sexual characteristics, and procreation (a word that, thanks to Nuttall, I just chose over “reproduction”). Dating from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with roots sometimes beginning much earlier, Nuttall’s trove of reclaimed words beckons us to loop our language back before the “Burning Times,” as witches like me call the infamous trials that peaked in Europe around 1650, during which tens of thousands of people, most of them women, were executed for witchcraft. In some villages, entire female populations were murdered and tortured, often in graphically sexual ways.1 Nuttall’s trove of words is a salve that encourages us to inhabit, briefly, a time before those women were annihilated under the jurisdiction of both church and state, kickstarting the patriarchy we know today.
The premodern England to which Nuttall’s book invites us to return, while certainly no matriarchy, was a time when “wife” just meant “woman”: alewives and fishwives and applewives hawked their wares, and a “housewife” was a woman who owned a house. The word “beldame,” applied to women in their elder years, was an honorific rather than a slur. The commons had not yet been closed off from the public, and indigent women were able to forage there. This was a time, Nuttall tells us, when women and teen girls were understood to be lustier than males; it was a time when birthing women spent several days of “lying-in” attended by midwives and surrounded by a covey of close female friends called “gossips” (“godsips”).
Nuttall’s collection of women’s words reminds us that women in England as late as the Middle Ages retained some traditions of this female culture. Instead of passive state-of-being words (“being pregnant,” “expecting a baby”) for pregnancy, she tells us, English once used active verbs such as “barnishing” and “childing,” the reclaiming of which might help us venerate our own life-giving powers. Other terms she shares include the flowing “flux” for menstruation, the gate-like “wicket” for vulva, the charming “wings” for labia, and the heroic “groaning” for giving birth. And then there is “mountain of pleasure,” a term coined by seventeenth-century midwife Jane Sharp for the clitoris.
Feminists who are wary that generalization about female lifeways will lead to oppression, or reduce us to physical functions such as procreation, may take issue with this book’s largely unexamined assumption that early women’s words are, in and of themselves, worth reclaiming. On the other hand, Mother Tongue’s excavation of ancient words suggests an approach to the conversation about essentialism that isn’t often heard. Corroborating the work of German scholar Heide Göttner-Abendroth on the ancient matriarchies that still dot our planet, Nuttall’s approach suggests that to recognize overarching patterns of female difference may lead to respect and reverence for the feminine in any form, rather than to the oppression and erasure of individual women.
Aside from the chapters on the body, sex, and birth, the rest of Mother Tongue—chapters on caretaking and other gendered work, on men’s violence, and on the tradition of misogynistic language—is basically a relentless history of toxic sexist words. Its monochromatic misogyny is sobering. (Nuttall tells us, by the way, that the poet Byron, in a letter to a friend, invented the word misogyny to describe his own hatred of women.) Paradoxically, to read Mother Tongue might have the effect of underscoring the pervasiveness of misogyny during the medieval period. So why does the introduction offer that cheery flea-market thesis? Perhaps a well-meaning editor pushed Nuttall to frame her book in a way that would feel more relevant to a contemporary general audience? Is that same editorial push at work in the cringey metaphors such as “the great DIY shop of the flesh” or “the womb’s crimson nightclub”?
To fully support the thesis that the past holds a trove of women’s words worth reclaiming, we might need to travel further back in time, as in Mary Mackey’s painstakingly researched Earthsong novels, set around 5000 BC, the beginning of patriarchy in Europe.2 Or we might need to travel further afield, as in Mary Daly’s Wickedary, which draws on folk etymology and interdisciplinary scholarship to empower us with the knowledge that “bitch” referred originally to followers of the goddess Artemis and “hag” descends from the Greek “hagia,” meaning holy.
But Nuttall is a medieval scholar, and a devoted one. Mother Tongue is jam-packed with precious information marshaled by a researcher with a lifetime of experience in a female body and a passionate commitment to feminism. This quirky, courageous book proves that there was a time, even under horrendous patriarchal conditions, when women who spoke English kept a measure of linguistic power over our own bodies, sexuality, and procreativity.
1. See for example Anne L. Barstow’s Witchcraze: A New History of European Witch Hunts.
2. According to the Kurgan hypothesis, advanced by Marija Gimbutas in the 1950s and now widely accepted.