Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words 
by Jenni Nuttall.
Virago, 292 pp., £10.99, May, 978 0 349 01531 6
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When​ my daughter began to talk about her body and the bodies of others, I wondered what word we should use for female genitals. I had been taught the term ‘front-bottom’ as a child. Very little needs to be said here about how stupid this is. My husband and I opted instead for ‘vulva’. It’s functional, but it does sound strange in certain contexts. My daughter recently asked me if the Beatrix Potter frog, Jeremy Fisher, had a tail or a bottom. I wasn’t sure and opted for bottom. Sensing that I was discussing a human animal, she asked if he had a vulva. I felt this would be a very personal question for Jeremy, but I went ahead and said that Jeremy Fisher does not have a vulva. (Letters should be addressed to the editors.) Would that she and I were instead drawing on the rich lexicon of earlier English words for female genitalia, words I’ve encountered reading Jenni Nuttall’s Mother Tongue. One of the earliest terms for both the vagina and the womb is the Old English word cwitha. I shared this with my best girlfriends. They said it sounded like a lovely village in Wales, filled with men of melodious voice. This seemed apt.

The earliest history of English has its share of prejudice but also offers a world of nuance and possibility. The term ‘girl’ was originally gender-neutral, meaning simply ‘young person’: the first recorded use of the word in English comes from a poem of around 1300 which describes a crowd of ‘gurles and men’ thronging a London street. Similarly, ‘Mrs’ did not become fixed as the title of a married woman until the mid-19th century. Before that point, it meant something like ‘boss lady’, a female honorific, indicating authority. Some words that now feel firmly gendered originally had another meaning. ‘Vagina’ meant the scabbard of a sword. I could not hate this more. The idea that it is a protective casing for a phallic weapon feels like a betrayal of what the vagina can do. Anyone who has seen or experienced the vagina expanding to allow an infant’s skull to pass through it can testify to its wonder.

‘As women have slowly made progress towards equality,’ Nuttall writes, ‘we’ve paradoxically lost some of the most expressive and eloquent bits of English vocabulary for describing our lives and experiences.’ This is not to say that the medieval past was a feminist golden age. Some of misogyny’s most tired ideas appear in the earliest texts. Isidore of Seville, writing in the seventh century, suggested that the word ‘woman’ (mulier) was derived from mollities, meaning ‘softness’. As Nuttall points out, mollities connotes ‘weakness, voluptuousness and susceptibility’. Isidore was a poor etymologist who retrofitted all sorts of weird ideas into words and their origins. Not content with one set of sexist assumptions about women, he reached for another to tell us that the word femina (also meaning ‘woman’) derives from the Greek for ‘the force of fire’, because women are very ‘passionate’ and ‘more libidinous than men’. Isidore would have it that women are inherently weak, but also horny, and used shonky etymology to enshrine a particular vision of the world; Nuttall, by contrast, sees a word’s origins as an invitation to open up further meanings.

The word ‘period’ for menstruation only appears in the 17th century. It is a euphemistic word, suggesting a ‘period of time’. Before its advent there was a plethora of alternatives, many of which are more descriptive. The Old English flewsa is related to Latin flux, or ‘flowing’. In Middle English we have rennyng (‘running’), but perhaps the best of all is ‘flowers’, which enters English via French after the Norman conquest. A variant of this word appears in several other languages. The Trotula, a widely circulated 12th-century collection of medical texts named after a female medical practitioner from Salerno and formerly attributed to her, was translated into 22 vernacular languages. As Monica H. Green has shown, in fourteen of these translations the Latin word menses – ‘months’ – is translated into the equivalent of ‘flowers’. The text observes that just as trees cannot bear fruit without blossoming, so women cannot bear children without their ‘flowers’. Although today we might blanch at this procreative determinism, it is a good deal better than many other terms, such as ‘the curse’, which my own mother used, apparently unthinkingly.

We should be wary of imagining that this more joyful terminology indicates a wholly positive attitude towards menstruation in the Middle Ages. The clerical text De secretis mulierum (‘On the Secrets of Women’) claims that if you plant the hairs of a menstruating woman in the earth, they will grow into a ‘long, stout serpent’. But it is striking that the Trotula, which was thought to be female-authored, attributes no stigma or shame to menstruation.

We live in a far more squeamish culture. The roots of this run deep. In 1870, the American doctor Edward Clarke argued that girls needed to be educated differently from boys during adolescence: ‘For the development and perfectation of the reproductive system … force must be allowed to flow thither in an ample stream, and not diverted to the brain by the school’. (By which logic, graduate study would have rendered me infertile.) If you want to buy tampons in a shop, you are likely to find them in a section labelled ‘feminine hygiene’ or ‘sanitary protection’, as though, Nuttall writes, menstruation were ‘somehow unhygienic or insanitary’. Menstruation is, of course, the shedding of the endometrium – cells that are, as the comedian and writer Sara Pascoe has put it, ‘the purest imaginable’, something so unpolluted it can nurture human life. Thomas Raynalde, writing five centuries ago, agreed: in his Womans Booke he states that menstrual blood is ‘pure and holsum’. Perhaps if we were to reclaim some of this pre-modern terminology we might be able to change our relationship to menstrual blood.

If we reclaim ‘flowers’, then perhaps we can also reinstate some earlier words for female anatomy. In Helkiah Crooke’s 1615 Mikrokosmographia, which the bishop of London tried to ban, the labia majora are described as ‘wings’ and the labia minora as ‘nymphs’. ‘Clitoris’ is a Greek-derived word first used in the 17th century. It’s rather pedestrian by comparison with some of its alternatives, such as the 14th-century regional dialect phrase ‘kiker in the cunt’. The ‘kiker’ here isn’t related to kicking but seems to mean ‘tilter’, possibly recalling the tilt of an erect penis, or it could just mean ‘chickpea’. Another medieval term called it the ‘hayward of the corpse’s [body’s] dale’. In this analogy, the vulva is the valley or pasture, and the clitoris is its overseer. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hayward as an ‘officer of a manor, township or parish, having charge of the fences and enclosures, esp. to keep cattle from breaking through from the common into enclosed fields’. It is hard not to enjoy the idea of the clitoris, the seat of pleasure, as the overseer protecting the dale from encroachment, especially from lumbering cattle. Nuttall also quotes some slang, including ‘little man in the boat’, ‘bean’, ‘pearl’ and ‘lickerish allsort’. I’d hazard that some of these words were invented by men. In 1671, the midwife Jane Sharp, whose biography is almost completely obscure, published a plain-speaking Midwives Book in which she talked about the clitoris as the ‘chief pleasure of love’s delight’, which I would like to endorse as a rare female-authored term, but it might be cumbersome to say in the throes of passion.

It’s a shame that people now say ‘orgasm’ or ‘climax’, such dull-sounding words, where once we had the plosive ‘pang of pleasure’. A 1655 text describes the mysterious ‘female seed’ pouring forth ‘in that pang of Pleasure’, with the ‘womb skipping as it were for joy’. I fear this terminology is unlikely to catch on. Although I might privately think of my vagina as a cwitha, words are social creatures; I can’t see myself saying it in public with a straight face. When past my due date with my second baby, I had a ‘sweep’ – a procedure in which a doctor pokes at your cervix in the hope of getting labour going. (This meaning of ‘sweep’ isn’t, incidentally, listed by the OED, which gives 28 other senses of the word, including those relating to cricket, shipbuilding and artillery.) I remember being told that my cervix was already a bit open. A good sign. I saw my father not long afterwards and cheerfully told him that I was ‘two centimetres already’. ‘What does that mean?’ he asked. A feeling of terror gripped me. I was going to have to say the word ‘cervix’ to my father, a man who might have been written by Trollope. ‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘you mean … the birth canal.’ Relief washed over me – the canal, such a reassuring word, so redolent of 19th-century industrial infrastructure.

There is​ a striking tension in Mother Tongue. Much of the key vocabulary we use today ‘for aspects of women’s bodies, lives and experiences’ comes from the late 18th and 19th century. In this group we have words such as ‘menopause’, ‘contraction’ and ‘cervix’ as well as the verb ‘to mother’, meaning to raise children, implying that it is the mother’s job to do so. We find new words such as ‘housework’ and ‘home-making’, indicative of the increasing separation of domestic and public spheres along gendered lines. And yet this was an era in which, as Nuttall writes, ‘enslaved people demanded liberation, social reformers agitated for better conditions and political representation for the poor, and women had begun voicing their claims for equal treatment in society.’ It is also here that we first find the words ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’.

In this period, Nuttall writes, ‘certain parts of society dug in to resist change.’ Language was often tidied up by lexicographers and literary texts cleansed. When an anonymous Georgian author published a modernised version of Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’, the words ‘hole’ and ‘ers’ were replaced with ‘buttock’ and ‘bum’, and Alison’s verdant pubic hair, described by Chaucer as ‘rough and long y-erd’ (‘long haired’) was described as ‘rougher than the down on ladies’ cheeks’. At the same time that this version appeared, it became usual to assign the male pronoun to nouns of indeterminate gender. We still haven’t shaken this off.

Much that was profane or unseemly was silently excluded from dictionaries during this period, so it’s a nice irony that the first person in the OED is a woman with heavy menstrual bleeding. If you look up ‘man’, the Old English mann or mon is cited as the root. It means ‘human’, not ‘male person’, and the earliest illustrative quotation is taken from Bald’s Leechbook, a tenth-century compendium of medical recipes. It suggests that in order to treat this ‘mon’, a doctor should put horse dung on a hate gleda (‘a hot coal’) and let it smoke between the patient’s thighs, so thæt se mon swæte swithe – that is, so that the man sweats a lot. This is the original person who menstruates.

The expression ‘mother tongue’, lingua materna, was first used in the 12th century to distinguish the language you learned at home from Latin, the language of the learned fathers. In the 14th century, the translator John Trevisa wrote that nurses ‘whilispith and semisouneth the wordis’ (‘mispronounce and semi-sound the words’) to the child. Mother Tongue is alert to the relationship between words and mothering. In Making Babies, Anne Enright writes that ‘all words happen in the space between you and your dear old Ma.’ I spend a lot of time teaching my older child new words and trying to coax language out of my younger child, who has so far mastered ‘bye-bye’ but also – crucially – ‘bum’. Genesis tells that Adam named the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, but the real naming, the first definitions, lie in the hands of the primary carer, the speaker of the mother tongue.

I am the teacher of words and latterly the keeper of words. My daughter used to call an octopus an ‘op-pus’ and an elephant an ‘emolent’. She quickly grew out of these, but I gathered them up to treasure them, as nobody else will. The babygros have been packed away, but I will always be able to summon those childish elisions. My mother remains a devoted keeper of her children’s words. I know from her that we called eyebrows ‘eyebrowns’, ponytails ‘tailpails’ and radiators ‘raidataiters’. Each generation holds these words in their care, ready to pass them on.

Seventeenth-century Bibles describe Eve as Adam’s ‘helpmeet’, a ‘sickly sweet description’, as Nuttall writes, ‘used for the ideal Protestant wife’. The origin of the word is a little obscure, but it was probably two words: Eve was ‘a help meet for Adam’ – ‘meet’ used here as an adjective, meaning ‘fitting or suitable’. In the course of reprinting and reissuing, the words became blended. ‘Helpmeet’ sends a shiver down my spine, but in an Old English poem on the Book of Genesis, we find Eve described as a fultum, meaning ‘help, solace, comfort’ as well as ‘military support’ and ‘armed reinforcements’. Reading this, I thought back to the first week of my daughter’s life. I was low on sleep, my nipples were bruised by my baby’s hungry attempts to feed and there were stitches in my vagina. I was struggling with the fierceness and rawness of the love I felt and had become fixated on my fear that she might come to harm. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw something horrible. My mother came and sent me for a nap. I couldn’t sleep. I re-emerged, weeping, and told her I could not stop seeing … what exactly? I couldn’t describe it. She told me that she had felt the same with her first child, but not with the others (a further four of us). I knew then that it would pass. I was battered and bruised, at war with my own mind, but my mother was a fultum – ‘solace, comfort’ but also ‘armed reinforcements’.

While I was writing this piece, I learned that Jenni Nuttall had died after a short illness. I had never met her, but I was bereft. I had shared many snippets of the book with friends, including the attempt by Parliament to ban ‘acts of gross indecency between female persons’ in 1921. The bill was quashed by the House of Lords, which feared that if the legislation were passed, the resulting court cases and publicity would draw attention to such practices. In other words, their lordships thought that ladies wouldn’t know how to get it on with one another unless they told them how. It was, we agreed, Peak Mansplain.

Reading Mother Tongue, I delighted in the words for practices now long lost. East Anglian slang ‘nidgeting’ or ‘nigiting’ meant the custom of rushing around the community to gather the women needed at a birth. I was stopped in my tracks reading about Frances Hatton, a 17th-century viscountess who wished to breastfeed her child rather than send him to a wet nurse, but found herself in too much pain to continue feeding. She wrote to her husband that she feared she would ‘never be cheerful again’. I remembered my own pain, the desperate urge to nourish my babies and how I had detested myself when I couldn’t produce enough milk for them. Nuttall had given me the words I lacked. Her death is a great loss.

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