Author traces ‘surprising history’ of words that label women and their lives


(NEW YORK) — Articulating a woman’s journey may not be an easy task, but in her new book, “Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words,” scholar Jenni Nuttall attempts to do just that.

The book, released last month, is billed as an investigation of the words used to describe women, “from the dawn of Old English to the present day,” according to the publisher’s synopsis. Nuttall “guides readers through the evolution of the words we have used to describe bodies, menstruation, sexuality, the consequences of male violence, childbirth, paid and unpaid work and gender.”

In an interview with ABC News Live, Nuttall gives examples of some of the language she presents in the book and how both her work with students and conversations at home with her daughter inspired her to write it.

LINSEY DAVIS: So let’s start with your research to sort out the origin of the word, “woman.” What language experts thought it was and what it actually is?

JENNI NUTTALL: The difficulty is, is where does that word “wif” [Old English] that’s standing for woman and then later “wife” comes from. Scholarship isn’t quite sure about that. It might be something to do with weaving, one of the occupations traditionally associated with women or to do with waving. People have suggested the idea of women kind of being busy backwards and forwards, or they’re kind of waving hips, but no one’s really sure. So there’s a bit [of] the further back you go, there’s more of a mystery.

DAVIS: You write, “Our vocabulary today still bears the consequences of this general shushing of women and their words.” During your research, what other historical writings showed evidence of sexism?

NUTTALL: Oh, I mean, an awful lot. You know, the way in which some of the writings of the Church constructs women and particularly medical writing in the words for parts of female anatomy and the way in which women’s sort of work is valued and shaped.

You can think of even words like bachelor and spinster for single men, single women. Bachelor – a young knight or a young student, so a bachelor of arts or even a kind of young apprentice showing kind of men making their way in the world. Spinster coming from that job title of a woman spinning wool, because that was often the kind of low paid, low status work that single women were left to do at the edges of the economy. And gradually that word becomes a kind of standard legal term for a single woman. So you can see marks on all sorts of vocabulary, the kind of traces of historical sexism and misogyny.

DAVIS: You’re a mother and also were a tutor at the University of Oxford. How has your research been influenced by your daughter and your students?

NUTTALL: Well, my students are right, and they often kind of stop me when I’m talking about a poem or a play or a story, and we’ll just stop and ask about a word. And lots of the book comes from kind of finding out the answers.

But I’ve also, in my home life, been working out what are the best sorts of words to talk to my daughter about, you know, what it’s like to grow up female. Ages and stages and kind of changes in bodies.

And one of the kind of sparks for the book was her coming home from school after a kind of tricky day and saying, period, that word we used for menstruation. She said, “Period is such a boring word.” And she meant something like, it doesn’t really capture what I’m kind of dealing with on a kind of physical, social level.

So it’s been a great way to bring my kind of home world and my working well together, this book.

DAVIS: You write, “Some of our first steps toward equality were taken by means of these radicals’ encouragement to live not as everlasting children, but once we come of age as grown women.” Can you explain how this imagery and how the language of what a grown women is supposed to be is influence the way girls ultimately grow up?

NUTTALL: Even as you go back into the history of familiar words like “girl,” that word, it comes quite late in the history of English and it comes in when it’s first used just to talk about female children and young women.

It’s used often to label girls and young women who are kind of stepping outside of roles like, kind of maiden or daughter or any of these, kind of, socially allocated roles.

So even “girl” has a way in which it’s, you know, we might think of that sometimes it’s used today as “girlish,” a slightly kind of belittling way of saying it. But “girl” in its history, right at the beginning, was often used to signify girls who were kind of pushing the boundaries of what was allowed.

So I thought with all of these stories, if you followed all of our everyday words right back to their beginnings, you could kind of find some of those tensions between what society is trying to kind of limit women girls to and what women and girls might want.

DAVIS: Really fascinating stuff. Thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate the conversation. I want to let our viewers know you can purchase “Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words” wherever books are sold.


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