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Mother Tongue

A Surprising History of Women’s Words

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With vim and verve, Mother Tongue: A Surprising History of Women’s Words discovers the first millennium of English words for women’s bodies and experiences.

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Jenni Nuttall


When we look to the past, we often expect to be disappointed. In the history of language, we expect to find misogyny around each corner, a disdain for or absence of the voice of women. But the history of women’s words, as it turns out, is full of surprises.

From the monthly flux or flowers to the mægs that experience them, from the original helpmeet, Eve, to the viragos who fronted early feminism, it is undeniable that there was a wealth of riches for describing our experiences, our lives and our selves.In fact, as women have made slow progress towards equality, we’ve paradoxically lost some of the most expressive and eloquent bits of our vocabulary. Here, Jenni Nuttall shines a light on them, to dust them off and see if we’ve any use for them today.

Mother Tongue is a rich, provocative and entertaining history of women’s words – of the language we have, and haven’t, had to share our lives. Inspired by Jenni Nuttall’s deep knowledge of the English language as well as conversations with her teenage daughter, this is a book for anyone who loves language – and for feminists who want to look to the past in order to move forward.

With vim and verve, Mother Tongue: A Surprising History of Women’s Words discovers the first millennium of English words for women’s bodies and experiences.


‘From the womb-wicket to the child-mighty, and roaring maidens to cunning crones, MOTHERTONGUE encompasses a millennia 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.’
Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes, author of Kindred.

‘A revelatory delight. It is richly scholarly, wry and funny, healthily grounded in women’s bodily experiences. There is a nugget of joy and wisdom on every single page.’
Victoria Whitworth, author of Daughter of the Wolf

‘Fascinating, intriguing, witty, a gem of a book’
Kate Mosse

‘This is required reading for logophiles, feminists, and history buffs.’
Publishers Weekly

‘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 “livelu, 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.’

‘Jenni Nuttall has written a book full of interesting observations about semantic change and etymological development’
Philip Hensher, Spectator

‘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.”’

‘One of the wittiest and most insightful books of the year… A must-have for any lover of language, history or women.’
Buzz Magazine

‘a great book on the history of women’s words in the English language.’
Adam Sharp, author of The Wheel is Spinning but the Hamster is Dead: A Journey Around the World in Idioms, Proverbs and General Nonsense

‘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… 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.’
Liber Magazine

‘A nimble treatment of history that blends lexicographical analysis with personal reflections… a fascinating primer on the origins of the English language.’
LA Review of Books

‘Reading Mother Tongue, I delighted in the words for practices now long lost… I was stopped in my tracks reading about Frances Hatton… Nuttall had given me the words I lacked.’
London Review of Books