Author Interview: Jenni Nuttall (Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words)

Continuing on in our academic/linguistics era, I’m joined today by Dr. Jenni Nuttall to talk about her new book Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words.

So many of the words that we use to chronicle women’s lives feel awkward or alien. Medical terms are scrupulously accurate but antiseptic. Slang and obscenities have shock value, yet they perpetuate taboos. Where are the plain, honest words for women’s daily lives? Jenni is here to explain all!

Learn more about Jenni and her work at

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Vulgar History Podcast

Author Interview: Jenni Nuttall (Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words)

September 6, 2023

Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster and today, because we are in our academic era lately, I’m talking with Dr. Jenni Nuttall who is the author of Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words. We’re talking about linguistics, we’re talking about feminism, we’re talking about the meaning of words. It was so fascinating, this conversation I had with her, and her book is so timely in interesting and fun ways but also in kind of [squirms] “Oyyy” sorts of ways because we’re living in an era where conservative politicians are really mad about pronouns and inclusive language. Books like this one really show that every word was just invented by someone at some time. Words, they have meaning, and they have significance but to be like, “How dare language change?” It’s like, it’s always changing. It was such a fun conversation and I’ll just let you know a bit about Jenni. 

So, Dr. Jenni Nuttall is an academic who has been teaching and researching medieval literature at the University of Oxford for the last 20 years and who has thus had a lot of practice at making old words interesting. She has a doctorate of philosophy at Oxford and completed the University of East Anglia’s master’s in creative writing. Mother Tongue is her first book for the general reader. I had such a good time talking with her. This book really, I don’t know, the stuff that is in this book connects with what we’ve been talking about all along on this podcast. It really, as I mentioned, has a lot to do with some really, really annoying things that are happening lately with conservative politicians in multiple countries. Anyway, I really hope you enjoy this interview with Dr. Jenni Nuttall.


Ann: So, I’m joined today by Jenni Nuttall, thank you so much for joining me.

Jenni: Thanks, it’s great to be asked to talk to you and your listeners.

Ann: Yeah! So, when I first saw what your book was about… My podcast is feminist history basically and I’m always interested in language and words, so your book is exactly the sort of thing we like to talk about. Actually, can you first explain how you describe your book to other people? What is it about?

Jenni: So, it’s a history of women’s words in English and particularly the early history of women’s words, starting out in old English and medieval English into the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. I suppose that might then prompt the question, what do you mean by women’s words? I don’t necessarily mean the words that women are using about themselves, I mean sets of vocabulary that have been used to talk about parts of women’s lives and experiences. And partly to kind of find out what’s going on in the early stages of that language, which words that we’ve got coming all the way from the deep past of English to now and which words have got lost, and to kind of look at sets and vocabulary for women’s bodies, the work they do, things like menstruation and pregnancy, and words for different stages of women’s lives. So yeah, just a kind of reaching back into the past for each of those sets of vocabulary to see what’s there and why.

Ann: There are a number of words that you talk about in your book that I think have particular resonances for this podcast and phrases that come up here. One of them is you talk about the different words and how it has developed in the English language to talk about breasts, and you say in your book that “Tit is the least worst of memory words,” that’s in your opinion. [chuckles] Can you talk about the development of the words that mean breasts? How that word has developed in the English language. 

Jenni: Yeah, it’s interesting I mean the book is full of subjective opinions like that, it’s me looking at language from my position in language as a speaker of a certain kind of British English who grew up in a certain sort of culture, testing out words. In old English, you have words like breost obviously and tit, these words that come through into modern English. But I was interested particularly in how changing ideas of register kind of join in. So, you might say if you’re going to the doctor, “I’m having trouble with my breasts” but some of these words end up with a more formal sense and I’m interested in finding out a set of synonyms. If you reach into the past, you can get those synonyms. So, you have breost and tit. You have a word like pap, even though we might think of that as a word for baby food, it starts out as a word for the breast and that’s where the connection with babies eating comes in. Then you have to name parts of the breast, the forward tit, the pap head, and eventually in the 16th century you get nipple coming in. 

I think reaching back into the past allows you to play around with choices. What if we’d ended up with that one and not this word? Tit, particularly in my kind of British English, is a good plain-spoken… You might say, “It’s as cold as a witch’s tit,” if you were trying to explain how freezing cold it was one morning. So, I was interested that that word is back in the past, it’s not just a kind of slang word and it’s part of this phase of English where you often have several synonyms of vaguely similar registers, you don’t quite get that stratification of polite words and impolite words that you get later on.

Ann: And talking about female body parts as well, you have a whole chapter that’s about female reproductive body parts and the words used for them but even just the word vagina was very interesting to me how you talk about the various medical textbooks, mostly written by men, and which terms ended up catching on and which didn’t. The word vagina, you could describe, it has to do with a sword and a sheath.

Jenni: Yes, it’s used in Latin treaties describing some of the new findings of anatomical dissection, when that gets going in a big way in the 16th century and it’s just in there really as an analogy. If you’re an anatomist, you will want to describe to your readers who haven’t been there and seen a dead body… They will know it in their own light but are trying to kind of describe it. And vagina, yeah, it’s just that word for sheath or scabbard of a sword and it’s to describe a reciprocal function; as a sword goes into a scabbard. And it’s not really presented even as a new technical term, I don’t think. But somehow, it gets kind of pulled out and becomes the standard term. Before that, things had been a bit vaguer in a way, so you have womb gates or ports or wickets

But it’s interesting, to me, it’s very sexist that what a vagina is the thing in relation to the male anatomy but that’s quite a late idea and it’s quite an accidental idea. This is not to say the whole history of these textbooks isn’t full of all kinds of misogyny but often you can find surprises in the histories of these words and every time I thought I knew something when I was setting off to research each chapter, I would suddenly think, “Oh, that’s a much stranger story than I thought it was.” And then behind that there were other words, and it can make… Whose perspective are we describing this body part from? And the 16th-century writers that are interested in opening up discussions of childbirth and pregnancy and communicating that to women readers in English are using a different set of words. They’re not using vagina to start off with, they’re talking about gates and doorways and passages. It is still metaphorical but it’s a different set of metaphors.

Ann: Can you talk about the thing with nymphs in regard to female anatomy?

Jenni: Yeah, that’s coming out of you know, each classical Greek medical treaty and that writing as it’s being translated into different languages, coming across. Again, it’s a little bit hazy. Some of these male writers are not very good at accurate descriptions of that part of women’s anatomy and as we do these days with technical terms, people muddle things up and overlap things. But yeah, an early alternative name for what we would call the labia is nymph and it’s where later on, this idea of nymphomania comes from but that’s a much later coinage. 

Here it’s just part of, again, this slightly kind of flowery, I wasn’t expecting the language of Renaissance anatomists to be quite so wonderful and particularly the English writers who are taking these Latin findings and bringing them across into English for a popular audience. Labia, lip because it looks like there is a comparison there with the lips of the mouth or actually, the edges of a wound, which seems like a bit more of a sexist idea. Even though nymphs is rather flowery, it’s explained in this lovely way that just like nymphs in mythology guard fountains, here are the nymphs down by your waterworks, that might be a way to say it. Again, isn’t it nice to have these sets of alternatives to kind of play around with that come out of these early Englishes?

Ann: I think that was one of the many examples in your book. But when you learn about what the words used to mean and you look at some of these old writings, you talk a lot about Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales or even some Shakespeare sonnets, you’re like, “This is a lot more sexual than I had realized,” just because you see a word like nymphs and think “Okay, nymphs.” But to them, it had this very specific connotation that makes it actually extremely sexual whereas to us it seems more like, “That’s a metaphor he’s doing.”

Jenni: Yeah, and then wings… They’re very good at using… It’s not very super accurate but there is a kind of lovely metaphorical language for all this stuff. Again, not quite as misogynist or sexist, there are strands of that kind of thinking all the way through the periods I’m interested in, but there are also much more appreciative descriptions of women’s body parts in these anatomical treaties and there’s a wonderful text called The Woman’s Book in the middle of the 16th century to talk to readers about pregnancy and gestation. And then yes, in the kind of punning literary texts, if you understand this early set of vocabulary, you can see that the past isn’t simply ashamed– I mean, they are sometimes called parts that are to do with shame but not always, they always have a kind of multifaceted identity, and you can find that if you look at different words.

Ann: What I found really interesting about your book as well is every time you’re looking at one of these words and how it’s used, it explains how that was seen in society, and what it means to history. So, as an example, the use of the word hysterical, you talk about where that comes from. I’d heard before about this idea of the wandering womb and stuff, but you dive into that and where did the word come from. Can you talk about that a bit?

Jenni: Yeah. The words are ways to almost write paragraph by paragraph little, mini… It’s not structured like something like Raymond Williams’ Keywords where you have separate chapters. But each time I got to a word I wanted to unpack it and yeah, there’s another example of something that perhaps feminist history might hold up and say, hasn’t the history of the word hysteria been such a long history of sexism? And that’s true but it’s slightly more complicated than that. So, we don’t get hysterical in English until the beginning of the 17th century, and we don’t get hysteria in English until midway through the 18th century and that’s because that diagnosis and the groups of symptoms and the ways of thinking that fit around those words change quite a lot. 

So, Plato might suggest that the womb is wandering but even early on, medical writers and writers who know their anatomy are going, “No, that’s completely impossible, we can see it tethered by ligaments. What are you talking about?” So, there’s a complicated story there. And is the thing that people are describing early on, something that gets called the suffocation of the mother so, a more physical idea that things can go wrong with the womb and make the rest of you feel very unwell and I can think of various modern complaints where that might seem a perfectly reasonable idea. It doesn’t necessarily always have quite the kind of misogynist connection with the idea that women are crazy, and their wombs are wandering around. Those come and go in history. 

So, in the 17th and 18th centuries, people were able to say, the thing we call melancholic or kind of, these nerve disorders in men, it’s the same thing in women but we give it a different name. There’s a much more nuanced understanding of these terms. It’s only quite late on, one of the scholars calls it a great forgetting, the eclipsing of that more complicated history in the 19th century, where you get a bit more of that familiar cliché of the hysterical woman and it all comes together. But I was so interested that you can’t even… You would think hysteria would be the easiest word to trace back as a word and idea deep, deep in the history of medicine and it isn’t. 

One of the things I wanted to do a little bit in the book, as well as writing a very feminist book that was kind of standing up for women in the past and highlighting sex in the past, but I also wanted to make the feminist history very accurate and really nuanced to say look, there are all those ideas that we grow up with as baby feminists but they’re always generally a kind of simplified version of a more interesting narrative. The first use of hysterical in English is used to say that a woman might be hysterical and might not therefore be a witch or influenced by witchcraft. So, it’s there as a kind of useful medical idea. “Don’t decide she’s a witch,” she may have this long-held diagnosis of the suffocation of the mother, and we might call that hysterical, and then it comes into English. So, I was interested in balancing out moments in the past where you have a more enlightened way of thinking about things versus our sense of the sexism of the past. That’s all there in the history of hysteria.

Ann: It’s really interesting too, in so many of the words you talk about in your book and how it really made me think about the power of words. We’re seeing it so strongly these days right now with people getting upset about pronouns or describing people as women or as ‘people who menstruate.’ The power and the way that words reflect a societal view, I guess, it’s more clear to me now because of some of these debates than maybe it would have been a couple of years ago. And you do mention that in your book, it’s a history of women’s words but you do talk about the use of the word woman versus using ‘people with a uterus,’ and things like that. Can you expand upon how you talk about that in the book?

Jenni: Yeah, I mean, I mentioned it just at the end. I think watching those debates play out was one of the… Several things came together in the writing of this book, but I was suddenly more conscious of the vocabularies that were being kind of changed or replaced to do with things like menstruation or pregnancy and it made me interested in all of those words. It’s something I’m still working my way through as an idea the kind of balance between including and acknowledging, I talk about this in the introduction a little bit, there will be people who wouldn’t categorize themselves as women but will need and use a lot of the sets of vocabulary I’m interested in in the book so that’s exactly right. 

It is interesting to see the kind of unintended consequences of that which is to see a word like woman disappearing. It’s not that we can’t say it anymore but in certain types of public health messaging or a certain way of writing a journal article about something, that words like women and girls might be sort of circumvented, written out somehow, and that’s quite significant in a way. So, I was interested in not really trying to solve those questions but thinking about, as you say, the way in which culture and language interact with each other and how even those usage choices there reflect these kinds of tricky, tricky balances that we’re trying to do. I could see both at the same time; all sorts of issues relating to women and their lives and experiences are being represented and articulated at the same time as we’re changing or needing also to do something else at the same time with that language. It’s an interesting space to be thinking about. 

But I think what I’m really doing if I’m honest is retreating to the past and saying, there’s all this going on but let’s go back and see what’s nearer the source, the origins of English. Yeah. So, it just frames the book, I think.

Ann: Exactly. You use it in the book as an example of how words have power, and how words interact with society. Your book is very much, as you described it at the beginning of this interview, how were things about women written in the past. 

But another weird way, and I say weird as kind of unexpected but also kind of distressing that some of this terminology is interacting with our current world, you do mention in the book the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which is using some, to me, quite obscure language about menstruation and about fetal development. Can you talk about that for a bit?

Jenni: Yeah. Again, it’s one of those patterns where things become much more fixed and regulated later on in the story. Earlier on in history and earlier on in language lets you see a picture where more uncertainty is possible. So, some of the debates, the legal debates that have been going on within the courts as far as I understand it, go back to kind of precedence, and one of the issues there is what does a 17th or 18th-century writer mean by quickening, say, the moment where the baby moves in the womb. What do they mean by misprision? What do they mean by… How are they positioning abortion? Again, a bit like the history of hysteria, where it’s quite easy to get the wrong end of the stick and simplify history, telling the story of the early history of which kinds of abortion are prosecuted and why and when took an awful lot of research. It’s not a hugely, heavily footnoted book but there’s a lot going on under the surface. I read and read for each of these chapters to try and get the story straight. 

The earliest prosecutions are to do with pregnant women being injured and having what we might think of as a miscarriage. There’s quite a long… Then it’s recognized that that doesn’t really work because it’s very difficult to know the legal personhood status of the fetus in the womb and what you see is that there’s an understanding this is very much a woman-centered knowledge as it were. This is before our world of scans and dates and everything. The moment of quickening is something that you know inside out and that the law and society are not so easily going to be able to intervene in and make pronouncements about. There’s a real caution and recognition of doubt in some of the early writings about when can we say this is a crime and when can we say that the fetus has a soul? So, it’s so interesting to see some of the legal debate, which appears to be so certain that the past agrees with you on something, where it’s a much more complicated story, even coming down to, kind of, what does that writer mean by that word? I think.

Ann: Yeah. I think it’s so useful and so important to have a book like yours that explains how the same word has meant different things through the years so for somebody today to see that word and be like, “Well, for sure it means this,” where people in all different cultures and contexts were using it in different ways. Language is so fluid, and I think that’s important for people to recognize.

Jenni: Yeah, and that’s underpinning some of the arguments that people are having today. I keep wanting to do the most simple kind of linguistics intellectuals say there’s this thing called polysemy, we recognize that one word can have several related meanings. But then you need to look at usage and context and work out which is going on. I was quite keen… This is not a book of definitions of things because defining… The idea that words have either a history or semantics will give you a kind of core, central, stable meaning, that’s not how it works. It’s always, as you say, different parts of society using words slightly differently and contested meanings, and even this very weird thing that language does which is to have, you can think of a word like wench which can mean both… It can be used straightforwardly for a young woman of a certain type of social status but then also has a pejorative meaning. The two sit alongside and even when you’re reading Shakespeare, you’re thinking, they do relate to each other, it’s not accidental that they have a kind of related meaning but there will always be a sense of negotiation. 

Certainly, we keep words to do with abortion and words to do with miscarriage separate now, as we definitely absolutely should and those are much more overlapping and intertwined and complicated in the past and again, it makes the legal history of this somewhere where you can’t just jump back in and grab a phrase and say, “That’s what that means.”  

Ann: I was just going to say, that’s part of why it seems preposterous to me to be making a legal decision now saying, “In 1642 they said this,” where it’s like, “Well… [laughs] a lot of context has changed since then.”

Jenni: Yes, and scholarship too. I think Carla Spivack if I remember her name right, she’s written a very good article about the complexity of the early history of the… There’s been some really good history research and it’s really the worst kind of cherry-picking to cite Hale or someone like that without looking… Because those legal writings are sort of processing the sort of stuff I’m interested in, the medieval early, early modern history of some of those ideas. They’re just looking at descriptions of cases in law books and thinking, like we are, what does that mean? How should we understand it?

Ann: And even a definition, this one also… After I read your book, I was talking to my friend and I kept giving my friend examples. I was like, “Did you know this? And did you know this?” It was the sort of book where I just enjoyed learning so many facts. One that I found interesting and was hoping you could talk about was the word husband and how it relates to the word housewife and how those interact with each other.

Jenni: Yeah. Even now, I don’t think that the sort of connotations of housewife and the connotations of husband, which you can see are kind of related, obviously we have husband and wife. Yeah, coming back in origin to the sort of, in most circumstances, the two people, the man and the woman, who are running the domestic economy of a hús of some kind, whether that’s a little house or a bigger unit, but that kind of domestic family unit. So, we would recognize a word like husbandry, there’s that funny phrase, animal husbandry, which means the looking after of farm animals, very well. That word, husbandry, and housewifery, the thing that housewives do, the wyf, the hús, the bondsman, the retained work of living in a house, not the kind of equal status in that they mean the same thing, but they mean the related activities that have to do with the running of the household, more in the sense of the economic functioning as it were, getting the stuff you need to live, running a house… 

Funny then that housewifery eventually becomes reduced to, you know, cleaning and cooking, these domestic things. But it used to have a much broader meaning, equivalent to husbandry, to do with the skill and knowledge and power in a social kind, needed not just generally a household, it might be a household or two but as everyone will know, earlier on in history, bigger households with servants, with children, to run those things. You even find men in the Paston Letters, there’s medieval letters saying, if you get a really good deal on some complicated wood bargaining interaction, “Oh, you’re being a great housewife,” they say to one another because it’s got these connotations of being part of kind of a system of finance and economy, without the separate spheres obviously comes along a lot later and starts to push these words in different directions. But yeah, you can think of husbandry and housewifery husbonde, huswyf, as the kind of pair at the start.

Ann: And that’s so fascinating to me. I’d never heard any of that until I read your book. In the current context, there are people who want “A return to the role of the housewife,” or a “traditional housewife.” And it’s like, well if we were doing that, if we’re actually going back to the traditional housewife, it’s what you were saying, it’s household management.

Jenni: Yeah. And maybe a bit closer to the trad wives who are monetizing the business, making a lot of money out of it. That’s what all of this early language acknowledges, that there’s a lot of economy. Even economy goes back to the idea of household in the Greek. Margery Kempe, that wonderful medieval mystic and traveler, writes in her book about how she’s going to try a new huswifery, and you think, I wonder what that is, and it involves a mill and a horse and an employee and all sorts of things. So, housewifery, yeah, you know, the trad wives gang need to somehow recognize that housewives are, you do see the… There are certainly gender-segregated employments and within households kind of gender-segregated tasks but there is definitely a kind of recognition of the importance of things like bargaining, money management, supplies, all of those things. They’re certainly not decorative or limited in what they do. Caxton has a lovely dialogue showing people how to do certain kinds of public speaking. One of the examples is a housewife in a market out in public, kind of, bandying with all the stallholders and getting the best deal. A housewife is a kind of larger-than-life person in the old history.

Ann: And just as a final question because the name of this podcast is Vulgar History, and I did choose it because of the several meanings of the word vulgar. You mentioned in your book, I was really excited that you talked about English as the vulgar tongue. Can you explain that meaning of the word?

Jenni: Yeah. It comes from the idea that the tongue of the common people, vulgus, and it’s there in that idea of the word vernacular too, this is the language that most people speak in a nation but not necessarily the language earlier on in English’s history of education or of science, knowledge, law, things like that. And often associated with women partly, predominantly because they’re excluded in a patriarchal society from some of those spheres in which other languages, Latin and French, are used. But the vulgar tongue is the language of the home and education, your kind of first language which often women are understood as the first teachers of your language when you grow up as a child. Even when we get to the point of the first dictionaries being created for English on its own, they say in their prefaces, these might be useful for women who need to… Sometimes it’s a bit of a marketing spin because then you don’t have to say, “And actually, we know all the chaps whose Latin and French are not very good at the moment might find… haven’t got the levels of education needed to decode some of these words.” 

But I was interested, yeah, you know, that question in feminist linguistics, are we sort of excluded through this language despite ourselves somehow? Is it always going to be the oppressor’s language somehow? Not quite if you go back in the past, it has had lots of associations with women in terms of teaching English, good speech, and bad speech. The gossipy speech and kind of, uncontrolled speech and speech outside of institutions and establishments but also, a kind of a speech that because it’s outside of those things, this is what I found so much as I was writing, it’s so wild and unruly and surprising, thinks on its feet, so I like the idea of… I wanted to have both, the history of the language that men used about women but where I could find it, I wanted to find that vulgar history. There’s not much straight from the horse’s mouth but there are ways to get back to when, say, in the Renaissance, physicians are writing for women, you start to find some of these words that are not formal. What Ursula Le Guin calls the father’s language, not the father’s language, but what she calls the mother tongue and that’s why the book has that name in a way, because I liked all those things coming together.

Ann: Also, just in the sense of writing for the common people or the general public, the book, I think, is very much written for an everyday audience. You don’t need to be a historian of linguistics to enjoy your book. I assume that was your intention because that’s how it comes across.

Jenni: Yeah. It’s written much more in the voice I kind of teach in, that was really fun, to try and be funny and try and explain things. Yeah, it was kind of interesting to write because I wanted to explain a lot and I didn’t, you know, as we’ve been talking about with hysteria or the history of witchcraft, say, I didn’t want to give the easy well-known version, I wanted it to be as up-to-date and scholarly in its knowledge but in its tone and its writing, I wanted it to be midway through a tutorial in Oxford when I’ve kind of lost the plot a bit and I’m just talking about the stuff I’m interested in and I’m from rather humble common background really, and I just talk in the kind of words that seem clearest and most expressive and I make a lot of jokes when I teach. It was so wonderful to have the opportunity to write a book like this and have editors and presses that could see the value of that kind of balance between the very accurate, informed stuff that’s going on in there but expressed in a way that hopefully was just really joyful and clear and kind of easy to get in and out of, I think.

Ann: I’m sure anyone listening to this can hear your passion and joy for talking about this subject matter and I think it’s great when someone finds so much delight in talking about a subject, to read a book that person has written just makes it more fun to read because you can tell how much fun you had putting this together.

Jenni: Yes, yes. Even in the middle of a global pandemic in quite trying circumstances. You must feel this too, that you don’t want to simply scold the past and tell the past off for being not as progressive as we are. Because I teach this really ancient, old English, medieval English, students pitch up thinking… I wanted to kind of show how much fun you could have with it, definitely. I like the idea, people have said that to me, it’s the sort of book that you’re reading and then you’re annoying the person next to you like, “Can I tell you this thing I just read?” [laughs]

Ann: Exactly. One of my coworkers, I get a ride home from work some days with her and I spent the whole commute being like, “And this! And did you know the history of the word husband? And did you know about the history of the word vagina?” I couldn’t stop telling her all these fun facts. So yeah, it’s that sort of book, definitely. 

So, when this podcast comes out, the book will have just been published, I believe in North America. Is it out already in the UK or is it coming out everywhere all at the same time?

Jenni: No, it’s already been out. So, I have two different publishers. It’s come out with Virago, that great feminist press and it came out at the end of May in the UK. But yeah, Viking in the States at the end of August. I’ve ended up with two different dates but it’s quite nice, it spreads the fun. 

Ann: It keeps it going for you so you can keep talking about it with different people. So, I wanted to ask, if listeners are interested in you and your work, do you have a website or are you on social media or anything where people can see what you’re doing?

Jenni: Yes, I’m on Twitter. I didn’t get the memo that you should have a really easy-to-explain Twitter handle, I was somewhere else when that happened. So, you can search for my name, but my Twitter handle is @Stylisticienne which is just impossible. It’s “She who studies stylistics” in French. I have a website, but the website is rather… Before I started doing this, I was writing a lot about medieval poetry and its form, so the website is mostly that. But I think the dying wastelands of Twitter are currently the best place to find me [both laugh] and maybe I’ll go somewhere else if it just falls over completely. 

Ann: That’s what is interesting about recording these earlier. If Twitter still exists when this episode comes out [laughs] that’s where you’ll be. But it’s good, I’ll put all the links to your website and everything in the show notes so people can track you down as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this. As I said, when I heard about your book, I thought it sounded interesting and then I read your book and thought, “I really hope I get a chance to talk to Jenni about this because it just sounds like exactly the sort of thing that I think the listeners are so interested in.” So, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

Jenni: Well, thank you so much. It’s been wonderful to talk.


So again, this wonderful book, now available in North America and also other places, I assume, is called Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words by Jenni Nuttall. My name is Ann Foster, and this is Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. Sometimes I do interviews with authors like this, sometimes it’s just me talking, sometimes it’s me with a special guest. You never know what you’re going to get with this podcast and that’s how it is going to always be, so get on board, that’s what I’m doing. 

Anyway, you can keep up with me and this podcast at… Like, god knows, social media… What is even happening? I am most active on Instagram @VulgarHistoryPod. That’s where you can find me. But if you’re using another social media thing like Threads or Bluesky, whatever, look up Vulgar History. I’m probably there and if I start seeing there are a lot of people there to interact with, maybe I’ll start being there more but at this point, Instagram is where you can find me mostly. You can also get in touch with me if you have a book to recommend, an author you think you’d like me to talk to, or honestly just a book you think I’d like to read, you can reach out to me in my DMs or also, if you go to, there’s a contact form there or you can email me at 

I have merch available in two different places. If you’re in the US, what tends to work best is going to If you’re outside the US, shipping is better if you use the Redbubble store, which is You know, in many places, we’re getting ready for back-to-school season, which I personally think is a great time to get a sticker or a T-shirt that says, “Scholarly and Rambling,” which was a thing I was once accused of being. You can get that at the merch store. 

You can also support the podcast on Patreon. If you go to and donate some money every month, you get different levels of bonus stuff. If you join the Patreon for at least $1 a month, you get early ad-free access to all the episodes, including older episodes. If you pledge at least $5 or more a month you get access to the ad-free episodes as well as bonus episodes, you can hear my episodes of So This Asshole where I just read men for filth, horrible men from history. We also have Vulgarpiece Theatre which are, like, three-hour long episodes I do with my friends Lana and Allison where we talk about costume dramas. 

And most recently in terms of Patreon, there’s also a Discord. So, for everyone who joins at the $5 or more level of Patreon, you get to join the Vulgar History Salon, which is a Discord which is basically a big group chat. Lately, and I don’t know if it’ll finish by the time you hear this episode, but one of our Patreon members Miguel has been running a sim that’s like, what if some of the greatest heroines of Vulgar History were playing the TV reality show Survivor and who would win? It’s been a really fun time. Anyway, you get access to all of that if you join the Patreon, I do want to mention that if and when I get to 500 members of the Patreon, I will do a So This Asshole episode on John Knox because that’ll emotionally take a lot out of me, you know, I need to be persuaded. 

Anyway, I think that’s everything. Next week we’re going to be back with the finale of the Mary, Queen of Scots season and I’ll give you an update on what to expect next from this podcast. So, that’s all coming up next week and until then, everybody keep your pants on and your tits out! 

Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.

Transcribed by Aveline Malek at



Learn more about Jenni and her work at

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