Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words (Hardcover)

Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words By Jenni Nuttall Cover Image
Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now


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 research medieval literature at the University of Oxford for the last twenty years. She’s thus had a lot of practice at making old words seem 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…

Praise for Mother Tongue

“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)

“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.”
―Kirkus Reviews

“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

Product Details
ISBN: 9780593299579
ISBN-10: 0593299574
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: August 29th, 2023
Pages: 288
Language: English