Shifting Language

The English Language Has a Lot to Say About Women’s Badassery

Oxford University medievalist Jenni Nuttall reveals centuries of women's rebellion against patriarchal strictures as reflected in the evolution of our language, in this fascinating excerpt from MOTHER TONGUE.

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In language at least, we never really escape from girlhood. Women of any age might enjoy a girlie lunch, a girls’ night in or a night out with the girls, each of them full of girl talk. These phrases, even as they infantilize, capture what might be most enjoyable about time without partners or children, hours spent with friends as if we’re back at school. Girl talk is sometimes dismissed as trivial gossip but it also contains the truths women tell each other when men aren’t listening. Some phrases try to shame men and boys by telling them that they’re crying or throwing like a girl, or being a big girl’s blouse or a girlie swot.

The English language coined plenty of names for those who didn’t go along with choking strictures. Though tomboy at first described a young man whose behavior went beyond what polite society thought acceptable, it was soon used in the 16th century for rebel girls too. Dictionary definitions hint at how such girls might transgress: their energy, their movement, their loudness, their boldness and impudence. Sir Thomas Blount’s Glossographia, a dictionary of tricky words published in 1656, defines a tomboy as “a girl or wench that leaps up and down like as a boy.” John Kersey’s 1702 New English Dictionary says that “a girl, or wench that ramps up and down like a boy” might be called either a tomboy or a tomrig. Verbs like ramping, romping and rigging described how unruly youths roamed around in public, mucking about and having fun, giddily enjoying what moralists said were vices. As many young people didn’t marry until their mid-20s, usually working in service and living away from home, their behavior, real and imagined, was often a source of concern.

These ramping, rigging verbs had equivalent nouns which, as the decades went on, were used more for girls than boys. Joseph Scott’s New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, published in 1755, explains that a ramp was a “hoidening, frisking, jumping, rude girl” (a hoiden or hoyden was another word for a lively lass) while a romp was a “rude, boisterous, awkward girl.” If girls were supposed to be silent, still and submissive, it wouldn’t have taken much to be labeled impolite or overactive. 

John Ray’s 1691 book of rare and unusual words reported that a harry-gaud was a name for a “Rigsby, a wild Girl.” A dictionary of underworld cant published in the same decade said that a hightetity (like the more familiar hoity-toity) was another name for “a Ramp or Rude Girl.” A 1746 collection of dialect words from Lancashire glossed a mey-harry as a “a robust Girl that plays with Boys.” It seems there were enough girls who flouted norms to need words to name them, or at least enough parents and preachers who wanted disapproving words for telling off bumptious, boisterous girls.

Young people having fun during the Renaissance might be roaring, hence why you might once in a while hear someone described as roaring drunk today—lively, riotous and revelrous, like the roaring twenties. A roaring boy was a stock figure, recognizable from everyday life but also a stereotype found in plays or poems. He was a loud and aggressive young man, famous for drinking, smoking and fighting. He delighted in every behavior Puritan moralists criticized. And, if you could meet a roaring boy on stage or in a London tavern, you might, more rarely, also encounter a young woman doing the same things. The most famous of these was the real-life Mary Frith, known by her nickname Moll Cutpurse, the inspiration for the title character of a play by Middleton and Dekker called The Roaring Girl. Like a reality-TV star today, Moll was the talk of the town, a notorious minor celeb with a colorful life. She wore men’s clothes, swore, smoked and visited pubs, up to her neck in minor crimes and dodgy dealings.

The Moll of The Roaring Girl, a play first staged between 1607 and 1610 and then printed in 1611 when she was around 25, is a cleaned-up version of the real-world Mary, more caped crusader than underworld crook. But she still baffles expectations. A snooty, snobby conservative dad says of the play’s Moll, “It is a thing/One knows not how to name.” Ignoring society’s customs turns her, in his mind, into a nameless, genderless it, yet at the same time, as the title of the play confirms, she’s very definitely a girl. Professor Jennifer Higginbotham, who has studied the language of girlhood in the 17th century, finds that women were called girls precisely when they were being unruly, rebellious or unconventional. To be a girl was to break the mold. 

Moll Cutpurse, it seems, wasn’t a one-off but one of a crowd. There were uptown wealthy roaring girls, as well as those who fought and stole and those who lived by selling sex. Yet as the 17th century went on and Puritan values were mainstreamed, this fashion for cross-dressing rebellion faded away. The image of the ramping, romping, roaring girl endured mostly in dictionaries, plays and stories in the words for girls who refused to meet society’s expectations. Mary Wollstonecraft, in her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was certain that “a girl, whose spirits have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always be a romp.” What society called romping might just refer to the way that many girls would want to be if they weren’t squashed down by ideas of modesty and “shamefastness.”

Though waiting to marry until their mid-20s gave many girls and young women a spell of time in which to roar and ramp as much as they dared or were allowed, society generally assumed that a maid would eventually become a wife. Despite these expectations, around a fifth of women remained unmarried, some by choice and many because of circumstance and lack of opportunity. Not every woman streamed along the pipeline from maid to wife to widow. In the later Middle Ages, as far as can be gathered from surviving records, between one-third and two-fifths of English women were either unmarried or widowed, the percentage still higher in towns where moneymaking opportunities were greater. In the 16th and 17th centuries, despite the Protestant promotion of companionate marriages and happy families, the number of women who remained single grew and grew. By the end of the Middle Ages, the English language had terms like singlewomen and spinsters for working women who weren’t yet or would never become a wife. A century later spinster had become the standard legal term for all unmarried women. Blount’s Glossographia explains it as a term of “Law-Dialect,” appended to the names of “unmarried Women, as it were, calling them Spinners.” Blount’s explanation seems puzzled that all non-married women, even the posh ones, were thus designated spinsters, but this belittling label has stuck fast in English.

Toward the end of the 17th century, public commentators became more and more worried about the fate of these unmarried women. At first, these concerns were well meant and practical: plans, for example, for communities in which single women could live and work, with education and training provided to give them skills to support themselves. Yet as Professor Amy M. Froide has discovered, unmarried women were soon blamed for their failure to make a match, characterized as disagreeable, unattractive and unlovable. With new industries and trades giving some women more economic opportunities and marriage being potentially less attractive, British society quickly recalibrated its views of spinsters, meeting them not so much with concerned pushback as the sort of shoving designed to stop social change in its tracks. Singlewomen and spinsters were rechristened old maids, a more mocking phrase than the equivalent term for men, bachelor, originally a word for a man in the early stages of his career as a knight, student or tradesman.

Some women, unsurprisingly, were spooked by the invention of this old-maid bogeywoman, frightened in case they ended up a laughing stock or a calamitous creature. The philosopher Mary Astell, in her bestselling, trailblazing work on female education, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, reported that women often panicked and married some “idle fellow” because they were “terrified with the dreadful name of Old Maid.” But other women weren’t to be coerced by heavy-handed fear-mongering. The writer Jane Barker remained unmarried from her youth in the 1670s, when she swapped verse with other would-be poets and got her brother to teach her Latin, until her death in 1732 after a lifetime of managing her family property and looking after younger relatives. In her early 20s she wrote a poem titled “A Virgin Life.” She hoped, so the poem said, to stay in this “happy life,” unafraid of “being called Old Maid.” Other relationships, those of family, friends, creativity and religious faith, were as valuable to her as any marriage might have been.

What metaphors and words are there to give shape to this long stretch of middle life? This language of ages and stages has far too many girls and not enough words for the later decades of women’s adult existence. In bodily terms, between the point when periods begin, the menarche, and when they stop, the menopause, we are, in doctor speak, technically living through our menacme, a word that sounds not so much empowering as mechanically dubious. These 19th-century medical terms bring with them a set of assumptions, a story arc we mightn’t agree with and which our lives mightn’t match. Acme is the ancient Greek word for the highest point of something, its fullest growth or greatest flourishing. This vocabulary insists that what matters are fertility and reproduction, that these years are our prime. They act out a long-standing metaphor which compared the life cycle of the human body, especially that of a woman, to the changing of the seasons. Puberty was a time of ripening, followed by a period of fertility and then an autumn and winter of decline. In an early encyclopedia which made its way, via Latin, from 9th-century Arabic to medieval English, spring is said to be like a young person about to get married, while summer is a person in their prime. Autumn is compared to a middle-aged woman feeling the cold. Winter, in portraits which are equal parts sexist and sympathetic, is “an old woman broken with age,” having lost her strength and beauty. In one version, this winter woman is “acremet for eld,” crumbled through aging. If appearance and fertility are all that is valued in women’s lives, the aging crone becomes the epitome of physical decline.

Whether starting to crumble or still floridly flourishing, the majority of us will arrive, sooner or later, at what past speakers of English euphemistically called the change of life (a phrase first recorded in the 1760s) or the turn of life (a phrase from the 1820s). These names for the menopause imply that we might metamorphose overnight, our lives suddenly swerving down a side road too narrow for a three-point turn, too twisty to reverse back onto the highway. If we ditch these idioms, we’re left with the medical terms—perimenopausal, menopausal, post-menopausal—which bring with them a wrong-headed hint of pressing pause on life within their syllables. While periods may splutter and end, life goes on and we’re not stopping yet. Happily, as with so many other aspects of gynecological health, the menopause is now emerging from the medical shadows. We’re not so embarrassed any more to acknowledge that we’ve reached that stage, speaking up about problems and demanding better information, assistance and accommodations. I hope these conversations will produce new vocabulary for this stage in life. 

While the language of ages and stages isn’t often on our side, some of this same vocabulary could also inch us towards equality. As 18th-century modernizers argued that education ought to allow many more than a select few to realize their full potential, they gave new impetus to the argument that it wasn’t women’s weaker minds which held them back but their useless schooling and lack of training. The writer Mary Hays, in her 1798 book An Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women, skewered in block-capped outrage the enforced dependence and learned helplessness created by women’s limited education and opportunities as nothing more than “PERPETUAL BABYISM.” Her friend Mary Wollstonecraft likewise argued that what society valued in adult women—weakness, sensitivity and docility—was ridiculously infantilizing. There was nothing very enlightened about a world in which men “try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood.” Instead she proposed that daughters as well as sons should be allowed to strengthen their minds and bodies so as to mature and develop. Some of our first steps towards equality were taken by means of these radicals’ encouragement to live not as everlasting children but, once we come of age, as grown women.


Excerpt adapted from Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words by Jenni Nuttall, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Jenni Nuttall

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