Virago has acquired a "personal" and "campaigning" exploration of the language we have had for women’s bodies and experiences over the centuries, by Oxford academic Dr Jenni Nuttall.
UK and Commonwealth rights in Mother Tongue: A Surprising History of Women’s Words were pre-empted by Sarah Savitt, Virago publisher, from Caroline Hardman at Hardman & Swainson. Allison Lorentzen pre-empted US rights for Viking US from Sarah Levitt at Aevitas on behalf of Caroline Hardman.
In the book–inspired by her deep knowledge of the English language as well as by conversations with her teenage daughter–Dr Nuttall provides a "rich, provocative and entertaining" history of women’s words.
It covers the first thousand years of English words describing female bodies, menstruation, women’s sexuality, the consequences of male violence, childbirth and caring, women’s paid and unpaid work, and what it is to be a girl and an older woman, as well as early English’s first attempts to articulate what we now call gender.
According to Virago, it also showcases "the eloquence of long-lost words and voices, expressiveness which can inspire and empower us to give louder voice to our own experiences and feelings, as well as some surprisingly progressive thinking which challenges our assumptions about the past and, in some cases, puts our 21st century society to shame".
Slated for spring 2023, Virago hopes the book will appeal to anyone who loves language and history, as well as feminists who want to dive into the past to think about the future.
Dr Nuttall is an academic who’s been teaching and researching medieval literature at the University of Oxford for the last 20 years. While she has published academic work with Cambridge University Press, and written features for Aeon and History Today, the book Mother Tongue will be her first for the general reader.
She said: "I’m so pleased the book will be published by Virago and Viking, and very excited to be working with Sarah and Allison. As I’ve heard women speaking boldly about their lives in recent years, I’ve become fascinated with the words we have at our disposal. Finding the right words to articulate our experiences — something more than medical terms, official words or slang — feels to me like an urgent project. Tracing these linguistic threads back to their beginning will reveal how we’ve ended up with our current vocabulary and let us imagine a different set of terms."
Savitt said: "Jenni has done all the hard work of acquiring decades of in-depth knowledge about the history of the English language and its relationship to women’s lives – and then choosing all the most interesting, surprising and relevant moments in that history for her readers. She has done this too with a passionate and keen eye for contemporary conversations, beginning with a discussion with her teenage daughter about why we call menstruation ‘a period’ and not, as earlier English speakers might have done, ‘a flux’ or their ‘flowers’. I’m thrilled that Jenni will be joining Virago and this feels like the perfect book for us because of how it champions women’s language and lives with wit and intelligence."