A Loss for Words

Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words BY JENNI NUTTALL. NEW YORK: VIKING. 304 PAGES. $29.

The cover of Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words

AMONG THE OLDEST REFERENCES to menstruation in literature is in the book of Genesis, in a story about a lie. Rachel stole her father’s household gods, it goes, and when he came to retrieve them, she threw a covering over the objects and sat on it. She couldn’t stand, she apologized to her father, because she was in “the way of women.” At the end of the sixteenth century, an English clergyman clarified in his guide to Genesis that Rachel wasn’t pretending to be incapable of standing, just uncomfortable, due to her “monethly custome,” an ancestor to our contemporary “period.” As Jenni Nuttall explains in her new book Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words, “period” has been in use to name a quantity of time since the Middle Ages, but “only at the end of the seventeenth century”—so, a little after the clergyman’s time—“does the phrase ‘monthly period’ appear in medical books as a name for menstruation.”

Before the sterile, temporal sense overwhelmed it, menstrual vocabulary in English was more playful and direct. In the Middle Ages, “oferflownis . . . gecyndes” (“natural overflow”) and “rennyng” (“running”) described blood leaving the body. Later, in early Modern English, doctors often called periods “the reds” “to distinguish them from discharges collectively known as the whites.” Branching out, Nuttall gives us “tentigo,” the engorgement of the clitoris or penis, and affectionately rural-sounding names for the former, like “heyward of corpes dale” and “the kiker in the cunt.” Who decided to leave these frank words and charming phrases to history? While it might seem intuitive to think of language becoming clearer or more precise over time, Nuttall points out that this isn’t always the case. We are capable of and might benefit from recovering words deemed unfit by English’s ruthless evolution.

Nuttall teaches the history of English and its literature of the Middle Ages at Oxford, where “young feminists” ask her to explain things like the link between “spinsters” and “spinning,” and whether a “maiden” is always a virgin. She also has a teenage daughter with whom she wants to discuss bodies using “plain facts,” and feels dissatisfied with the small range of clinical, Latinate words in English use today. Both contexts, she writes in her preface, led her to old glossaries and dictionaries, trawling for “the beginnings of women’s words, our now-forgotten vocabulary.” Perhaps, Nuttall proposes, we might have use today for this discarded lexicon. “Like vintage tools laid out for sale at a flea market, we can pick up these older words, puzzle out their purposes, compare them with today’s language and see if we have any use for them, decorative or practical.”

Around the time the structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure became more famous than the philologist Ferdinand Sommer, the study of the history of words left serious conversations to become etymology, legitimate only for the use of poets, dinner party guests, and the kind of academic everybody resents. That doesn’t mean there’s a right or wrong way of writing about past forms of English, only that there are no rules. To her credit, Nuttall announces herself to be cherry-picking along the lines of her own interest. At one point, she visualizes Mother Tongue’s data as a Wunderkammer: “Old words, like many sorts of antique bits and bobs,” she writes, “seem quaintest without any of their original provenance.” This “bits and bobs” method characterizes how she proceeds “by snippets and excerpts, assembling a patchwork quilt of dictionary entries and quotations, each phrase or sentence making up my larger textile.” Throughout, she defers any arguments building in the background in favor of a pointillist, accretive approach, gathering microhistories from the lineage of individual words and phrases related to women’s bodies, experiences, and working lives.

Nuttall understands that invoking “women’s words” to describe experiences that are not universal to all women and that are often shared with people who do not identify as women will exclude some readers. So she makes a modest claim about who her book is for, borrowing a rhetorical aside from Julian of Norwich, the late-medieval mystical writer. Julian wrote about her faith, Nuttall notes, “al [sic] in general and nothing in special,” meaning that she was not commenting on any individuals’ lives or claiming ultimate authority for her thoughts. “Just so,” Nuttall writes, “the women’s words I’ve chosen are relevant in general but not necessarily in special for every reader. But I hope my grammar of us and we can stretch to include whomsoever might know something of the experiences each chapter describes.” Gradually, however, through tiny increments of the “special,” Nuttall puts together a lexicon that, like a thesaurus, limits meaning to a few synonyms while seeming to expand it.

Carlo Dolci, Saint Agatha, ca. 1665, oil on canvas, 26 7/8 × 19 3/4".
Carlo Dolci, Saint Agatha, ca. 1665, oil on canvas, 26 7/8 × 19 3/4".

Much of the book is taken up in pointing out a void in modern English, a negative space where the vocabulary “of the distinctive parts of female anatomy, of menstruation, of sexuality, of pregnancy and childbirth, of caring, of working, of the stages of our life cycle, of male violence aimed at women and of patriarchy and inequality” of past Englishes once dwelled. If describing Elizabethan-era women “getting their period” feels vaguely anachronistic, it’s not because of the facts, but because of the changed vocabulary. The shift from “monthlies” or “lunations” to the more abstract “period” is perhaps evidence, Nuttall suggests, that a fleshier and more practical lexicon has been eliminated by misogynist squeamishness about what is considered appropriate to say out loud and write down. The words that survive today have been altered by material as well as social forces. By the eighteenth century, the language of birth had begun to share vocabulary with the language of imperial expansionism, global capitalism, and the trade in enslaved people: terms like “labor,” “delivery,” “productive/nonproductive,” “failure to progress,” and “future issue.”

Sometimes words disappeared for no reason. Sometimes they emerged, fully formed, out of the obscure music of English nonsense. The term “dildo,” for example, comes from a once-popular chorus. “Sing doe with a dildo! you might bellow with enthusiasm in Tudor England,” Nuttall writes. Similarly, “hey nonny nonny” “conveniently rhymed with cunny, that slang word for vagina or vulva.” In an early modern multilingual dictionary, the Italian “fossa” or “pit” is translated as a nickname for “a woman’s pleasure-pit, nony-nony or palace of pleasure.” In contrast with these nonsense-derived words, the phrase “willy-nilly,” Nuttall explains, derives from a nasty and specific phrase: “wulle ha, nulle ha”—whether she wants to or not.

The truth of “willy-nilly” is a good example of how the rules of conventional taste have obscured certain histories. Topics like sex between women, for one, are few in the written record, but that’s no reason to think that reflected a real-life scarcity. Some rare French neologisms of the Middle Ages tried to wrangle with the details of lesbian sex. Nuttall compares conservative commentator Candace Owens’ horror at Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion performing “WAP” at the 2021 Grammys to an twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poem on contemporary vices. Ladies in particular, the poet Étienne de Fougères wrote, do something Nuttall glosses as “‘coffin’ on ‘coffin’, ‘shield’ on ‘shield.’” Elsewhere he calls scissoring “l’escremie del jambot,” which Nuttall translates as the delightful “thigh-skirmishing.”

Is language supposed to be a record? Nuttall would like to fill in some of the blanks. As she points out in her chapter on menstruation, scholars have not always been able to countenance the medieval language of the body. Victorian translations from Old English, she writes, “primly camouflaged” “monað-aðl” meaning “month sickness,” or menstruation—as the Greek “catamenia,” which few readers could ever have been expected to understand. This kind of pointed absence is reminiscent of how British politicians, as Nuttall cites, argued in 1921 that the government should not outlaw lesbian sex because doing so would inform women of its existence.

It’s striking, then, to examine the negative space in Nuttall’s project of recovery. In a passage fraught with fascinated ambivalence, Nuttall describes the visual culture around Saint Agatha, the fifteen-year-old Sicilian martyr whose breasts were cut off by a Roman magistrate. In paintings, Nuttall writes, “Agatha often appears holding her two breasts on a platter, two jellified and cherry-topped desserts.” Imagining removing breasts, Nuttall writes, makes her “shudder and daydream.” Historian of medicine Barbara Orland and other scholars have repeatedly shown that breasts were a locus of queer thought in the medieval and early modern periods, for example in the abundant record of miraculously lactating Christian men. But Saint Agatha seems to inspire Nuttall only to visions of dismemberment. “What if we could just take them off?” she asks, about breasts. “We could keep them in a bedside drawer, ready to be suctioned on when wanted for a particular purpose. No need to strap them down to exercise; nothing to be stared-at or groped.” The fact that you can remove your breasts if you want to is not mentioned, but “uni boober,” a term Nuttall cites from communities of postmastectomy British women, is—more than once. It’s a strange moment from which to preclude the voluntary while celebrating the involuntary.

By the afterword to Mother Tongue, the unsaid is positively looming over the page. Recently, Nuttall remarks, “when some topics relevant to a majority of women have been addressed, the words woman and women themselves have sometimes been avoided in favor of circumlocutions” like “those who menstruate.” She complains of feeling “as though there are more rules to follow and more conventions to attend to when discussing women’s lives” today, invoking fellow Oxford academic Deborah Cameron’s term “verbal hygiene.” “Some of us,” Nuttall writes, with a strange “us,” “find this verbal purification unproblematic and helpfully precise, an inclusive sign of progress. Some of us prefer the gender-additive language of women and . . . as a workable compromise.”

Nuttall does not explicitly frame the social forces of erasure in language as violent or compare proponents of gender-inclusive language to whoever killed the word “wicket” for “vulva.” But she does suggest that “language activism” threatens to overwrite her women’s words, and claims it is imposed “top down rather than being requested by those concerned.” “Many of us”—now apparently meaning cis women—“fear the consequences of choices which might meet with disapproval. Taking into account patriarchy’s habit of urging women to be quiet and of caricaturing those women who do speak up or out as gossipy, frivolous, hysterical, dull, or bitchy, it seems regressive to stifle women’s words, however progressive the motivation.”

Nuttall’s “grammar of us and we” has shrunk and hardened, the subject of the sentence lost in subjunctive layers. Suddenly it all makes sense: Mother Tongue reads exactly like a rebuttal to the imagined proposition that the phenomenon roughly labeled “women” should be eradicated from English. This hidden argument is based on one of the most annoying misunderstandings of the movement for letting individuals choose to use nongendered pronouns: that, like those patriarchs of years past, nonbinary people want to erase women from language. Considering how inclusively Nuttall’s project began, this realization reminded me of puzzling over a student’s essay, hunting for its logic, only to realize that its ostensibly mind-blowing juxtapositions are in fact simple mishmash. Mother Tongue isn’t dishonest, but just like a rushed piece of homework, its mission is overwhelmed by its own sense of exigency. 

Jo Livingstone is a critic in New York.