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“A fascinating look at how we talk about women. . . . Dense with information and anecdotes, Mother Tongue touches on the hilarious and the devastating, with ample dashes of an ingredient so painfully absent from most discussions of sex and gender: humor.” ―Lisa Selin Davis, The Washington Post
“[Nuttall] examines the origins of words used over many centuries to describe women’s bodies, desires, pregnancies, work lives, sexual victimhood, and stages of life. . . . Her research is comprehensive enough that even longtime word enthusiasts will find plenty of new trivia.” ―The New Yorker
An enlightening linguistic journey through a thousand years of feminist language—and what we can learn from the vivid vocabulary that English once had for women’s bodies, experiences, and sexuality
So many of the words that we use to chronicle women’s lives feel awkward or alien. Medical terms are scrupulously accurate but antiseptic. Slang and obscenities have shock value, yet they perpetuate taboos. Where are the plain, honest words for women’s daily lives?
Mother Tongue is a historical investigation of feminist language and thought, from the dawn of Old English to the present day. Dr. Jenni Nuttall guides readers through the evolution of words that we have used to describe female bodies, menstruation, women’s sexuality, the consequences of male violence, childbirth, women’s paid and unpaid work, and gender. Along the way, she challenges our modern language’s ability to insightfully articulate women’s shared experiences by examining the long-forgotten words once used in English for female sexual and reproductive organs. Nuttall also tells the story of words like womb and breast, whose meanings have changed over time, as well as how anatomical words such as hysteria and hysterical came to have such loaded legacies.
Inspired by today’s heated debates about words like womxn and menstruators—and by more personal conversations with her teenage daughter—Nuttall describes the profound transformations of the English language. In the process, she unearths some surprisingly progressive thinking that challenges our assumptions about the past—and, in some cases, puts our twenty-first-century society to shame. Mother Tongue is a rich, provocative book for anyone who loves language—and for feminists who want to look to the past in order to move forward.
About the Author
Dr. Jenni Nuttall is an academic who has been teaching and researching medieval literature at the University of Oxford for the last twenty years, and who has thus had a lot of practice at making old words interesting. She has a DPhil from Oxford and completed the University of East Anglia’s MA in creative writing. Mother Tongue is her first book for the general reader.
Praise for Mother Tongue
“A fascinating look at how we talk about women. . . . Dense with information and anecdotes, Mother Tongue touches on the hilarious and the devastating, with ample dashes of an ingredient so painfully absent from most discussions of sex and gender: humor.”
―Lisa Selin Davis, The Washington Post
“[Nuttall] examines the origins of words used over many centuries to describe women’s bodies, desires, pregnancies, work lives, sexual victimhood, and stages of life. . . . Her research is comprehensive enough that even longtime word enthusiasts will find plenty of new trivia.”
―The New Yorker
“Edifying and enlivening, Mother Tongue excavates the history of various words, from those relating to menstruation to words used to describe violence against women.”
―Rhoda Feng, The Boston Globe
“A fascinating history of the words used to describe women and their bodies and their work from the fifth century to 1800.”
―St. Louis Post Dispatch
“An eye-opening survey of the etymology of words used to identify women’s body parts, the kind of work they performed, and the violence they suffered from men in Anglo-Saxon English from the 400s to the 1800s (with brief forays into more recent times). . . . This is required reading for logophiles, feminists, and history buffs.”
―Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“This easily digestible and scenario-rich depiction of the evolution of language we take for granted is . . . done with care and compelling detail. Nuttall answers why we have been taught to say what we do, but more importantly, reminds us that the language we are handed is contextual, cultural and ultimately changeable.”
“Fascinating, intriguing, witty, a gem of a book.”
―Kate Mosse, author of Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries
“Nuttall, a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature and the history of the English language, brings humor and a merry curiosity to her examination of the ‘lively, unruly and often startlingly vivid’ words used in reference to women and their bodies from Old English to the present. . . . A fresh, informative perspective on women’s lives through the centuries.”
“Mother Tongue is scholarly and authoritative, but joyful, never dry, leavened with vivid etymological tidbits and Nuttall’s wry asides—for example, that Genesis’ blaming Eve for the labor of childbearing is ‘such a dick-move.’”
“From the womb-wicket to the child-mighty, and roaring maidens to cunning crones, Mother Tongue encompasses a millennium of enthralling English parlance. Incisively scholarly, affectionately humorous (and sometimes quietly furious), Nuttall sifts the archives of centuries and listens to modern echoes, as lost voices emerge, showing how women have long spoken, and been spoken of. Vivid, philosophical, absorbing and urgent, this superb book teems with historical marvels and their 21st century resonances.”
―Rebecca Wragg Sykes, author of Kindred
“What a revelatory delight of a book. It is richly scholarly, wry and funny, healthily grounded in women’s bodily experiences―they don’t change but attitudes towards them do, and we are clearly very mistaken if we think we are getting it right and previous generations were unenlightened. There is a nugget of joy and wisdom on every single page.”
―Victoria Whitworth, author of Daughter of the Wolf
“Full of interesting observations . . . Entertaining.”
―Philip Hensher, The Spectator (UK)
“One of the wittiest and most insightful books of the year . . . A must-have for any lover of language, history or women.”
―Buzz Magazine (UK)