The word is out! We are delighted to announce that Dr Jenni Nuttall’s Mother Tongue: A Surprising History of Women’s Words, an exploration of the rich and varied language we have had for women’s bodies and experiences over the centuries, has been acquired by Virago. Publisher Sarah Savitt pre-empted UK and Commonwealth rights for Virago from Caroline Hardman. Mother Tongue has also been pre-empted in the US by Allison Lorentzen at Viking in a deal struck by Sarah Levitt at Aevitas on behalf of Caroline Hardman. Mother Tongue is set for publication in spring 2023.

Jenni said: “I’m so pleased the book will be published by Virago and Viking, and very excited to be working with Sarah and Allison. As I’ve heard women speaking boldly about their lives in recent years, I’ve become fascinated with the words we have at our disposal. Finding the right words to articulate our experiences — something more than medical terms, official words or slang — feels to me like an urgent project. Tracing these linguistic threads back to their beginning will reveal how we’ve ended up with our current vocabulary and let us imagine a different set of terms.”

Savitt said: “Jenni has done all the hard work of acquiring decades of in-depth knowledge about the history of the English language and its relationship to women’s lives – and then choosing all the most interesting, surprising and relevant moments in that history for her readers. She has done this too with a passionate and keen eye for contemporary conversations, beginning with a discussion with her teenage daughter about why we call menstruation ‘a period’ and not, as earlier English speakers might have done, ‘a flux’ or their ‘flowers’. I’m thrilled that Jenni will be joining Virago and this feels like the perfect book for us because of how it champions women’s language and lives with wit and intelligence.”

In the book–inspired by her deep knowledge of the English language as well as by conversations with her teenage daughter–Dr Jenni Nuttall provides a “rich, provocative and entertaining” history of women’s words.

It covers the first thousand years of English words describing female bodies, menstruation, women’s sexuality, the consequences of male violence, childbirth and caring, women’s paid and unpaid work, and what it is to be a girl and an older woman, as well as early English’s first attempts to articulate what we now call gender. Mother Tongue showcases the eloquence of long-lost words and voices, expressiveness which can inspire and empower us to give louder voice to our own experiences and feelings, as well as some surprisingly progressive thinking which challenges our assumptions about the past and, in some cases, puts our 21st century society to shame.

Dr Jenni Nuttall is an academic who’s been teaching and researching medieval literature at the University of Oxford for the last twenty years, and who has 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. She is the author of a readers’ guide to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde with Cambridge University Press and she is contributing a chapter on ‘Literary Language’ for the Fifteenth Century volume of the Oxford History of Poetry in English, edited by Julia Boffey and A S G Edwards. Mother Tongue will be her first for the general reader.
You can read the full Bookseller article here.