Jenni Nuttall, academic and lecturer at the University of Oxford, specialises in Medieval literature. She also writes for wider audiences about the history of the English language.

Earlier this month, Jenni spoke to Michael Rosen about some of the words that feature in her upcoming book, MOTHER TONGUE: THE SURPRISING HISTORY OF WOMEN’S WORDS. That is, words used by women and about women since the beginning of the English language.

BBC Radio 4 have summarised ten things that Jenni Nuttall discussed in the radio episode. In these ten bitesize pieces of information, we read about Jenni’s research and expertise on a range of words, including the origins of the word ‘woman’, and the distinction between what we understand ‘spinster’ to mean today and what it originally conveyed.

In the episode and article, Jenni explains that ‘woman’ originates from ‘wyf man’, with ‘wyf’ being the Old English term for married and unmarried women, though the etymology of ‘wyf’ itself is difficult to follow. She proposes several meanings including actions to do with weaving, waving to and fro, or swaying of the hips.

While ‘spinster’ is now known to refer to an older single woman, it originally referred to the work that a woman was doing. In the case of a spinster, she was a spinner of thread or yarn. Over time, as we know, it came to mean something else.

In another bitesize segment, Nuttall interestingly points out the humble origins of the word or title ‘lady’, with the original meaning being ‘loaf kneader’. The word travelled up the social hierarchy from a low-status term to a high-status title.

Jenni accessibly explains and explores the origins of words relating to women, looking at their original meanings and uses. The origins of the words she explores are not always straightforward. Jenni contributes to this exciting conversation with care and nuance.

Buy MOTHER TONGUE on Thursday 25th May 2023. 

Listen to the BBC Radio 4 episode here.
Read the BBC article here.