Mother tongue The surprising history of women's words

Jennifer Anne Nuttall, 1975-

Book - 2023

"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"--

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2nd Floor New Shelf 422/Nuttal (NEW SHELF) Due Oct 9, 2023
[New York] : Viking [2023]
First United States edition
Physical Description
292 pages ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 272-278) and index.
Main Author
Jennifer Anne Nuttall, 1975- (author)
  • Introduction: Women's words
  • Cors : words for female anatomy
  • Flux : menstrual language
  • Lust : sex and its terms
  • Matrix : the womb's words
  • Nurse : the language of care
  • Industry : working words
  • Ghyrles and hags : words for ages and stages
  • Fors : naming male violence
  • Custom and tyranny : finding feminism's vocabulary.
Review by Booklist Review

Drawing on sources from Beowulf to Our Bodies, Ourselves, Oxford University lecturer Nuttall unpacks the relationship between language--typically written by men, for men--and the evolution of women's lived experience from the Anglo-Saxon period into the nineteenth century, when feminists began reshaping the language of gender. Nuttall surveys the textual evidence for customs and attitudes toward women's physicality and social position, covering topics such as menstruation, sexuality, maternity, work, and sexual violence. There are some surprises, such as evidence that women enjoyed comparatively more freedom in earlier periods, with inequality and restrictive, more disparaging language growing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Victorians relegated women to homemakers, elevating men to breadwinners. In the final chapter, Nuttall examines an ongoing linguistic push to separate reproductive anatomy from behavioral expectations in the meaning of female. 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 Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Nuttall (The Creation of Lancastrian Kingship) offers 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). Delving into sources from law, literature, and medicine, Nuttall contends that because men enjoyed higher literacy rates, they often crafted meanings advantageous to patriarchal institutions: the word hysteria, derived from the Greek for womb, became a byword for irrationality; words like occupation, employment, industry, and business that once "described activity itself" became "particularly associated with paid employment," while terms like housework and homemaking surfaced late in the 1850s to demarcate and devalue women's labor; and the "ambiguous histories" of words like ravishment and seduction have complicated the definition of rape and women's attempts to secure legal remedies. Nuttall concludes that though people now have language to denounce the chauvinism of words that began "in the service of sexist theories," their etymology serves as a sobering reminder of how closely "the world-which-once-was snaps at our heels." This is required reading for logophiles, feminists, and history buffs. (Aug.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Kirkus Book Review

A history of women through words. 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. Delving into sources that include the Bible, midwives' handbooks, and medical treatises, Nuttall traces how words evolved from a mixture of superstition, speculation, and scientific inquiry, informing and reflecting cultural attitudes about women's anatomy, menstruation, sexuality, pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and stages of life as well as male violence and patriarchy. She reveals, for example, that "vagina began life as the Latin word for a sword's scabbard," creating an image of a penis as a dagger thrust into the vagina as sheath. Terms related to pregnancy reflect assumptions about whether the uterus served as a "passive carrier or active creator." Connotations have changed through time: Nuttall notes that the term breeding as a synonym for pregnancy and childbirth, widely used in early English, seems dehumanizing today, and words like conception and pregnant carry double meanings--one referring to thought, another to growing a child. The Industrial Revolution that shaped Victorian society gave rise to many euphemisms about women's bodily functions, such as menstruation, as well as their function within the family. Terms like housework and home-making, Nuttall shows, gained currency in the mid-19th century, when middle-class women were relegated to the home while their husbands functioned as breadwinners. Although historically few words identified a woman's stages of life, Nuttall has found sources for maiden, damsel ("the posher kind of unmarried woman"), and, from the 17th century, tomboy. As contemporary feminists claim, words matter: "It's hard to escape a pattern which is presented to you as your very destiny in life and backed up by words themselves." A fresh, informative perspective on women's lives through the centuries. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.