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Review | ‘Mother Tongue’ offers a fascinating look at how we talk about women


What do you know about “vagina”? No, not the body part — the word itself.

Having read Jenni Nuttall’s “Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words,” I now know quite a bit. “Vagina” derives from the Latin for “scabbard.” Realdo Colombo, an Italian anatomist, so described it in the textbook he penned in 1559: the place where the penis enters “as if into a sheath.” By the 17th century, “vagina” had caught on with French physicians, and it found its way into English in 1612, by way of a translated French text.

Mining ancient texts across a millennium — dictionaries, agricultural guides, poems, letters, medical manuals, advice books, even a rule book for brothel workers — Nuttall, a lecturer in English at Exeter College, charts the journey of the language we have used to describe women’s bodies, women’s work and women’s lives. Divided into sections about menstruation, lust, reproduction, nurturing, working and aging, “Mother Tongue” also explores words describing male violence and emerging feminist language.

You may learn more about female anatomy here than in any high school health class: Did you know that “vulva” may come from “valva” — matching pairs of opening and closing doors — or from “volvere,” to roll or go round, as the womb encircles the fetus? Or that, as Nuttal explains, “cervix” is Latin for “neck,” “a rather dull word for something so animate — it changes texture and position across the menstrual cycle, tailoring day by day the mucus it makes in its infoldings”? That the outer labia were once called “wings” and the inner labia “nymphs,” though some called the clitoris “nymph,” too — either way, the origin of “nymphomania”? That in medieval English, the womb was “matrix,” a setting in which to reproduce something?

Go ahead and giggle. ‘Butts’ is a serious look at backsides.

With painstaking detail, Nuttall chronicles how language controlled by men — the writers of dictionaries, after all, while women’s words for themselves rarely made it into print — codified ideas about women’s behavior and lives. They hardened stereotypes into words, overlaying corporeal reality with euphemism in the name of propriety. She notes that “caring, motherhood and maternity … are not exact synonyms,” though the keepers of linguistic meanings might want them to be. And, oh, the classism of the elite male definers! For instance: The jobs of low-status women were often synonymous with those of “loose women” — such as “wench,” which could refer to both a young female servant and a sex worker.

Nuttall delivers the promised surprises of her subtitle, including in a most entertaining lesson on Chaucer. She writes of the common etymology of “rape,” “rapture” and “ravish,” noting that such words could refer to sexual violence but also to cases in which a woman who was someone else’s property was technically “stolen” from her guardian. In some cases, the woman might consent to that “theft” — and might even be happy about it. As Nuttall explains, “These overlapping meanings often muddied the waters around what was and wasn’t rape” — an ambiguity that may have lingering consequences.

At some point I realized I was highlighting a good half of the book — to what end, I wasn’t sure, other than to overwhelm people at dinner parties with etymological trivia or marvel at the journey of language. Nuttall reminds us that any given word can reveal whole histories of global economy, conflict and conquest; that language can both reflect and shape reality; and that many of our troubles arise from a kind of linguistic territorialism that belies the ongoing evolution of language. That goes for those resisting change as well as those pushing for it. As Nuttall observes, “Some activists shame those who won’t adjust their vocabulary” when it comes to modern scuffles over gender-neutral language.

Etymology, as Nutall demonstrates, is never destiny. “A word’s meaning often moves crab-wise, one circle in a Venn diagram encroaching on the next through some real or invented connection,” she writes. Migrants to the British Isles brought the word “mann” or “mon,” which meant “human” — not specifically male human. (Might we now dispense with the spelling womyn?) In fact, one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest entries for “man,” from a 10th-century medical textbook, describes a woman, treated for heavy periods by way of coal-smoked horse dung between the thighs. “Not a pleasant-sounding treatment,” Nuttall admits, “but rather marvellous that this dictionary’s first person is female.” Briefly, in the 18th century, “he,” “him” and “his” referred to both sexes, and the honorific “Mrs.” applied to women regardless of marital status — but might also describe a mistress. In the 14th century, “gurles” could mean boys or children of either sex, but by the 17th century, “girls” meant unruly young women.

Alas, for perimenopausal crones like me — “crone” being a 16th-century word for older female sheep — there are but few historical words to unearth. Perhaps that’s because life expectancy was once so much shorter, but perhaps also because the “change of life” (a phrase from the 1760s) has always been so unspeakable, and older women — old maids, say, or “superannuated virgins” — so unpalatable. Nuttall notices that “the stigmas and slurs addressed to older women grew stronger and crueller over time.”

Dense with information and anecdotes, “Mother Tongue” touches on the hilarious and the devastating, with ample dashes of an ingredient so painfully absent from most discussions of sex and gender: humor. Eventually I hungered for a little exhalation in the text, a narrative interstitial where I could sink my teeth into the story of one word or one word chronicler. Nuttall offers little along those lines, which is no dealbreaker, but I also expected that at some point she might tackle not just ancient but current battles over the word “woman,” and over the language of sex and gender, in schools, politics and the law. I was curious to know if she’d fan the flames or douse them.

I appreciate her concise definition of “sex”: “the two types of humans needed for sexual reproduction.” For the most part, though, Nuttall artfully sidesteps America’s most vicious argument, as if it were a kerfuffle along the edges of popular discourse rather than the stuff of school board screaming matches. I was left to wonder what this entertaining and informative etymological romp could tell us about the present moment. That one shouldn’t protest the protean nature of language? Or that one should understand who pushes for those changes, and why? Defining words for common usage, after all, is quite different from defining them in law and policy.

Ultimately I discerned a subtext, whether Nuttall intended it or not: As women, we need to define our words for ourselves.

The Surprising History of Women’s Words

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POST AUTHOR: Lisa Selin Davis

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