Wednesday 26 July 2023


I'm on a bit of a Michael Rosen jag at the mo. In May this year he interviewed Dr Jenni Nuttall D.Phil., historical linguist from Oxford U. She has recently bundled part of her research into a book Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words [2023 Virago]. One of her themes is to explode the "phallusies" of the patriarchy [Aristotle - looking at you, φίλος] when they write and interpret their scripture about who women are and how they function. Aristotle started several of the erogenous erroneous hares off but few blokes go back to read what he actually wrote: it's easier to rehash a soundbyte of an executive summary of what later patriarchal scholars laid out.

Quote: Tit, for me is the least-worst of mammary words. Talking about my breasts outloud sounds a bit formal, as if I'm using my posh telephone voice. I like the jollity of boobs but a boob is a fool, and a booby-trap is a snare for the hare-brained . . . To be busty sounds like you might be broken, or headless, or just particularly big-breasted. Bosom is a lovely word, originally naming the comforting, hugging circle which the arms and chest can make. But maybe my bosom doesn't want to be a pillow for one and all.

With the author a philologist and linguist, not to mention the title, it is not surprising to learn me a lot of new words and get a better focus on (the nuance of) their meaning. Who knew that menacme trundled on between menarch and menopause? In times past, but also in my Chambers 20thC English dictionary, girls and young women who intruded into stereotypic bloke boisterity were romps, ramps, hoidens or tomrigs? All we have in common English is tomboy. Unmarried adult females were originally called singlewomen, which is fair enough, but this was supplanted by spinster - spinning was at the time a low paid drudge work carried out, but not exclusively, by women. Poshoes might be damsels, as if they had escaped from a medieval romance. Matron was an honorific to a woman of substance, usually but not necessarily married. Beldame gradually sagged from mature woman to a decrepit ugly old wan. It is joined by a cacophony of other pejoratives: old trot, vecke, hag, crone. Nothing as powerful or respectful as cailleach (originally the veiled one) in Irish and Scots Gaelic.

I like the conceit of treating English the language as a foreign country. "sex rôle . . . arrives in English and French and German experts were translated and discussed, often with rôle's circumflex still in place like a souvenir hat from a holiday". Language has power to mould thought: In Genesis early translations had God make Adam "a help meet for him" i.e. appropriate. Someone added the hyphen help-meet and then it was lost so that Adam got a subordinate sidekick 'helpmeet'. Men could then point to that "it's The Bible" to justify disempowering half of all people. Well sod that!

This is a good book which addresses the concerns of modern women (which are the concerns of us all) through a particular, peculiar lens. One of the central issues is: by the historical patriarchy keeping books from women and women from books they have effectively been invisibled by history. That allows men to have dominated discourse with a lot of feeble, I said it so it must be true phallusies which crumple under the most cursory critical prod. I get the feeling that it didn't have to turn out the way it did. If St Paul had carried on to Damascus and missed the conversion to Christ, he could have kept his misogyny in his trousers rather than getting it written up in the New Testament as The Word of God. Sod that too!

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