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An Alphabet of Feminism #14: N is for Nanny

2011 January 17




Sonic Nurse

After the army of Important Academic Languages, and their Distinguished And Layered Relationship With Modern English, we reach this. Nanny has no real relation to Latin, Greek, French, Middle or even Old English, but derives from ‘a child’s corruption of the word nurse‘, tellingly akin to mammaNurse, it must be granted, has slightly more pedigree: it derives from the twelfth-century Old French term norrice, via the Latin nutricius (= ‘that suckles, nourishes’). It first appears in 1530 as a verb ‘to suckle’, and as a noun fifty years later, where it has the meaning we probably use most often: ‘one who takes care of the sick’.

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, in Gone With The Wind

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, in Gone WIth The Wind. Image from

Nanny is first cited as an independent word meaning ‘a child’s nurse-maid’ in 1795, whence it proves itself as fluid as you would expect, also encompassing a quasi-proper name, Nana (Cf. Katy Nana in Mary Poppins, and the Newfoundland dog in Peter Pan). In 1830s America, we meet another deviant form of the same idea: mammy, a dialect corruption of mamma referring to ‘a black woman who looks after white children’. In extended form, mammy refers to a racial stereotype: ‘the loud, overweight and good natured black woman’, epitomised (in proper name form) in Gone With The Wind, and controversially brought to life in an Oscar-winning performance by Hattie McDaniel (above, right). And it’s not all the Americans: this phenomenon has certain similarities to the British use of native women as nursemaids in colonial India, ayahs, so named in reference to the Hindi word meaning ‘nurse’.

Dude Ranch Nurse

All this leads back to one place: the whistleblowing potential of an infant’s cries, in this instance naming the truly maternal figure in their formative years. But then, of course, until the late eighteenth century (the nineteenth, in France), no fashionable woman would even consider nursing her own child: on the contrary, wet nursing (sending your kid out to be suckled by a hired breast) was so common as to be automatic. Newborns were generally sent away for up to two years to be nourished, at a rate of anything from a few shillings a week to between £25 – 50 a year.

The reasons were as varied as the price, spanning the apparently trivial (social custom, and the desire to return to public life ASAP); the medical (fears for the mother’s health after the strain of lying in sans twenty-first century advantages), and the ‘medical’ (the widespread notion that sex with a nursing woman would damage her milk and therefore the child, and the belief that conception was impossible during this time anyway). It also seems possible that rampant infant mortality may have contributed: parents would send their children away until they had survived their most dangerous years, rather than invest emotional energy in a little’un who might well leave you before their first birthday.

That said, the enduring influence of the nanny qua mother-figure lasted long into the twentieth century, albeit mostly among the mega-aristocracy: The King’s Speech (2011) imagines the future George VI to have been closer to his nannies than his family; one of these, Charlotte Bill, was famously also an effective mother to his autistic and epileptic younger brother, Johnny (re-created in the 2003 BBC serial The Lost Prince).

Maggie’s Farm

Louis XIV of France depicted breast-feeding from his wet nurse

Louis XIV of France painted with his wet-nurse, by Charles Beaubrun (c.1640)

The women who actually did all this nursing were inevitably of a lower social class than their clients – if not a different race – although they could earn good money (and possibly a nice pension) in the process. Here we tumble into a parallel nanny universe: the word in its more formal sense originating from another proper name. Through a bit of shuffling, good old Ann became first Nan and then Nanny, in which incarnation, around 1788, the word came to simply connote femininity, as in Nanny-goat (= ‘a female goat’, on which see also ‘Jenny Wren’ and ‘jenny-ass’). Like Doll, Nan’s trajectory suggests commonness, generic feminine identity, and while the dictionary is specific on the two nannies‘ separation, its stated origin in an infant’s mouth is by definition uncertain, language development fluid, and the connections between milking and the farmyard in need of little exposition – compare the nineteenth-century term baby farmer, a lower-class wet nurse happy to let her charges die because her one-off fee encouraged little else. The term was always pejorative, and synonymous with the dangerous, non-nurturing female.

In contrast, we have the nannies who stayed with one family for generations (like the mammy and the ayah abroad): these last are inevitably conventionally ‘older’ than their baby-farming colleagues, and presumably played a more extended mothering role. It is these strange insider-outsiders who appear in literature as bawdy and decrepit old women, inevitably depicted as their job title suggests: firmly on the side of the children they raise, to the extent that they will happily aid their improper sexual dalliances. It is thus that the Nurse appears in Romeo and Juliet, and in Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes. The suspicion inevitably directed at these figures is certainly class-based: wet nursing’s detractors had been arguing for years that by withholding mothers’ milk parents risked their children absorbing working-class mannerisms – and criminal tendencies – from their surrogate teats.

Na na na na na.

The next stop for the nanny is in the inter-war years, with representatives including P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, the poems of A. A. Milne, and Noel Streatfeild‘s legion of sexless ‘cottage loaf’ Nanas. Streatfeild’s children are almost invariably orphaned, and their Nana-figure keeps them nourished through ‘nursery ways’, a stubborn lack of sentimentality, and a feeling of permanence sadly lacking in the increasingly fragmented world of war-torn Britain. A similar idea is repeated in the 1964 Disney film of Travers’ novel, which makes the significant decision to backdate events to 1910, when the focus is on ‘moulding the breed’ for future colonial greatness:

A British nanny must be a general!
The future empire lies within her hands.
And so the person that we need
To mould the breed
Is a nanny who can give commands!

Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964)

In so doing, Disney’s film situates the nanny as part of ‘tradition, discipline and rules’, nurturing Britain’s future rather than its children, and flying in the face of its very etymology.

Mr Banks’ song does, however, lead us to the final stop on nanny’s childishly simple word-journey: its modern incarnation as the Dreaded Nanny State (first appearing some time between the fifties and sixties). Always an opprobrious term (attempts to re-appropriate it have met with derision)  critics of government intervention ranging from the welfare state to the smoking ban hark back to the nanny to point up ‘mollycoddling’, the infantalisation of the people (who are presumably thus reduced to the baby-talk of the nursery) returning to childhood with a fussy female at the helm. Wash your face, dearie.

N is for Nanny - illustration showing a nanny washing a child's face

NEXT WEEK: O is for Ovary

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    January 17, 2011

    I presume that somewhere along the way it picked up its modern meaning, at least to folks of a particular area or social class, of Grandmother. It’s easy to see why, given the role that grandparents can play in the raising of a modern child, a term once applied to a servant who looked after the kids when the parents wouldn’t/couldn’t became used for the grandparent who looked after the kids when the parents wouldn’t/couldn’t.

    This one was particularly emotionally charged for me as both of my grandmothers, who survive and to whom I am close, insist on being called “Nanny” or “Nan” rather than “Grandma”, “Granny”, etc. I’m also concerned about the possibility of this existing along class or area lines and wonder whether it was cut for space, or simply overlooked?

    • Hodge permalink
      January 17, 2011

      Hallo Russell,

      This did occur to me in the writing, as there were a lot of kids in my primary school in particular who used the name ‘nana’ to talk about their grandmothers. In this form it may have a connection with the Greek ‘nanna’ meaning ‘aunt’, but I think it’s ultimately a relation of ‘nanny’ as ‘generic woman’, often also becoming ‘generic older woman’ (cf ‘nanny goat’ / Nan / Ann; also the Renaissance use of ‘cousin’ to mean ‘any extended relation’), which I do discuss in the post, although not specifically in relation to grandmothers – there’s an implicit connection there too with the *nurturing* woman (cf ‘baby farmer’ as the ‘non-nurturing woman’).

      Alas, it has been the case throughout these Alphabet posts that frequently a word’s more modern association will get clouded. This is because I’m quite strict about how I approach them (primarily for space reasons), and simply follow the dictionary definition for my form – the function of the posts is, ultimately, to say what Official Academic English considers (and has considered) a word to mean – with inevitably problematic implications, which I hope will serve as a prompt to discussion rather than depression.

      “Nanny” was a particularly difficult word because it really only barely made it into the OED at all, where it is glossed as ‘a child’s corruption of “nurse”, a child’s nurse-maid’, with a separate entry for “Nanny” as in ‘nanny-goat’. Really, that could mean any number of things: I just felt that the wet nurse / surrogacy tradition was a nice vignette to focus on as it could spark discussion on traditions from the one you mention to colonialism, slavery, child mortality, class, housewifery and medical history and contraception.

    • Jenni permalink
      January 17, 2011

      Yep, can vouch for this usage in my old house/street/town (Leicester).

      • Miranda permalink*
        January 17, 2011

        In my family, who are further North than Russell-land and Jenni-land, it’s always been “Gran” rather than “Nan”, presumably at least partly because “nan” sounds too much like “mam”, which is what we predominantly use for “mum”, being mainly of a Geordie or Mackem bent…

        • Russell permalink
          January 17, 2011

          It sounds like it might be Midlands-y, which of course plays havoc with the idea of a class divide along geographical lines (us Brummies, messing everything up) (yes, I know people from Leicester aren’t Brummies, neither are people from Shropshire). Strange that the OED apparently overlooks what I would have thought a rather common usage of the word, however, which seems to leave my initial question open.

          I don’t mean to de-rail the topic, but felt this was an interesting aside to the article as it potentially raises some interesting linguistic questions about the same word being applied to a servant and a grandmother, which of course opens all sorts of lines of thought about gender and class.

          (I don’t mean to de-rail the topic but I do it anyway BECAUSE THAT’S HOW I ROLL)

          • Hodge permalink
            January 17, 2011

            As far as the same word being applied to a servant and a grandmother goes, I wonder if a nanny is actually a servant at all – that portrait of Louis XIV certainly suggests otherwise, and if you compare a nanny to, say, an au pair, that also complicates her status (‘au pair’ literally meaning ‘equal’). I suppose she’s providing a service, but she’s certainly higher up than the ‘other’ servants, and in some families seems to have been a figure with as much if not more power than the family themselves – although you’d probably stay out of the kitchen when the cook was in there too…. I dunno, this is one reason I call her an ‘insider-outsider’ in the post – Noel Streatfeild’s nannies often reminisce about their parents wanting them to work somewhere where their food and board are provided so that their earnings are their own, which is a very different attitude from a scullery maid’s – equally, there are lots of nannies in literature who seem to be just there for the ride, because they love children / have been in the family for generations, and are explicitly not being paid at all. In those instances, they’re like the family, but not, which is a very odd position and (I suppose) not dissimilar to the position of the poor old grandmother…

        • Miranda permalink*
          January 17, 2011

          That said, my great great grandmother, who was incidentally a Suffragette and from the South, was “Nonna” to my dad in her old age. So… yeah, I reckon it’s pretty widespread, as Rob says.

    • January 17, 2011

      Used “nanny” for my grandmother as a child here in West London too, so it seems fairly widespread. In my case I think it might have been to differentiate from my great grandmother who was also alive, so she became “Granny”, whilst my grandmother was “Nanny”.

      • Hodge permalink
        January 17, 2011

        I think all of these things are part of the same basic pattern that’s discussed in the post: fiddling around with ‘proper’ pronunciation (‘granny’ is surely an equivalent relation to ‘grandmother’ as ‘mama’ is to ‘mother’). This could be part of infant speech, it could be dialect, or it could be something else – ‘Mammy’ is, I’m almost certain, a specifically African American dialect, either real or imagined, so its appropriation by white Southerners is, ah, interesting…

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          January 19, 2011

          I think that Nanny = Grandmother must be fairly widespread. My maternal grandmother was always known as “nanny”, and my mother was called “nanny” by all of her grandchildren. Both my mother and her mother were born and died in Essex (and, as far as I know, lived their entire lives in Essex).

          • Pet Jeffery permalink
            January 20, 2011

            I’ve been wondering about some of the class issues around the word “nanny”.

            Presumably nobody from the social classes that might employ a nanny would call a grandmother “nanny”. My feeling is, therefore, that (however widespread) the “grandmother” sense is a working class usage. If the “grandmother” sense is neglected by dictionaries, that may reflect something about the class origins of lexicographers (and, perhaps, those of authors on whom lexicographers draw).

            I have also been wondering about the social class to which wet nurses belonged. Were they domestic servants? Obviously, they were lactating. In an age of high infant mortality, my guess is that their own babies had died. Who had fathered the dead babies?

            I will admit to an interest in this question from the point of view of my own family history. Nobody knows who my mother’s father was. At the time of my mother’s conception, my maternal grandmother (“nanny”) was working as a servant in Little Maplestead, Essex. (To provide some context, this was 1911.) My mother’s father was presumably a member of the household for which my nanny worked. The story, in essence, was surely not uncommon. And I wonder how closely related wet nursing was to the sexual abuse of servants.

          • Hodge permalink
            January 20, 2011

            I am assuming that ‘nanny’ as ‘grandmother’ must have a relation to ‘nanny’ as ‘generic (maternal) woman’ which would indeed suggest it has a lower class connotation. That said, my grandparents were one from each class, as it were, and very firmly ‘Grandma’ and ‘Granny’ (not hard to figure out which is which, I suspect).

            As for the social class to which the wet-nurses belonged, I think it may be higher than one might think – they could, obviously, be working class, but they could also achieve a degree of social mobility in the process of wet nursing ‘to the rich and famous’ that suggests they were not regarded with contempt by their employers. The lactating issue puzzled me too – in Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse talks about her own dead child (by her husband, also dead), who was ‘of an age’ with Juliet, and I think we can safely assume this was why she was lactating (it also creates a sense of her relationship with her charge – reciprocal surrogacy. Shakespeare is clever.). However, lactating can be induced without having a child to start it off, and is technically possible post-menopause. I should therefore imagine that while a proportion of wet nurses probably did get into it as a way of ‘not wasting the milk’, a significant alternative just went into it as a career (it was a very lucrative one: if your husband was a labourer, and you were a wet nurse, you were the one bringing home the bacon – interesting from the point of view of women in the workplace / women’s pay there, perhaps).

            As I said above, I also wonder about the status of the ‘dry nurse’ nanny in (certainly 19th & 20th century) culture – I get the impression from books of the period that she had an authority stronger than, say, the cook, but that her position was one of curious liminality: part inside the most private areas of the family (the nursery) and part domestic servant.

            Of course, another issue we haven’t tackled is the nurse in Freud – the Rat Man, for example, talks about his childhood nurse as this sexually unrestrained loony, who used to make him crawl under her skirts and get her off. However much that’s the ramblings of someone by definition mentally disturbed, he still felt he could say it. (That links very interestingly as an ideological standpoint with your family history, actually – if nurses are sexually unrestrained, they are also sexually available). And the connection with the Freudian mother there is interesting too – the nurse serves a purpose as the ‘bad mother’, so that the ‘good mother’ can be always good in the eyes of her children. Cf. also stepmothers in fairy tales. But that’s a topic for another day.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    January 20, 2011

    This may take us some way away from nannies, but… Your mention of the good mother reminds me of something that arose on a counselling course. During the first session, we were formed into pairs to discuss whether a number of generalised statements were true. The woman with whom I was paired thought that one of them was true: “All women are good mothers”. To demonstrate that it was false, I thought of raising the point that some mothers abuse their children, but decided that I didn’t want to argue this, and opted for the less controversial point that not all women are mothers. But, of all the things on the course, this is amongst those that return most often to mind. How could she believe that all mothers were good mothers? Had she never heard of a case of maternal cruelty? Had she blocked them out? And, more worrying on a personal level, why didn’t I care to argue the point? Is there something about the concept of the universally good mother which I find uncomfortable to challenge? Leaving aside such examples as Baby Peter’s mother, most (all?) mothers must fall somewhere in between being good and bad mothers. They’re fallible human beings who sometimes screw up. But this seems an issue from which I wish to shy away. Motherhood is raised up on a pedestal, which I seem unwilling to rock.

    M must have been a difficult letter to choose for this alphabet. “Mother” is one of several interesting alternatives to “marriage”. I read somewhere that the word for “mother” in all known languages begins with an “M” sound. (I’m not sure whether this is true, but it’s certainly true of languages from more than one language group.) The author who made that assertion thought that the “M” was in imitation of a baby’s first cry.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      January 20, 2011

      Another interesting “M” word is “Maid”, which can either mean a virgin or a female servant. In the context of “Nanny” it forms part of the curious compound “Nursemaid”, of which the first half is associated with motherhood and the second with virginity.

      • Hodge permalink
        January 20, 2011

        Yeah. And, like ‘nanny’, it’s a word that only comes to mean ‘servant’ because of its association with a ‘generic woman’. All women are servants and mothers. To put it very crudely.

        • Hodge permalink
          January 20, 2011

          Also cf ‘girl’ – ‘the shop girl’, the ‘check-out girl’. Along with ‘maid’ and ‘nanny’ it feels to me like a diminished form of femininity: the not-quite-adult by virtue of serving.

    • Hodge permalink
      January 20, 2011

      Only just saw your first comment re: counselling. I recently read Coetzee’s novel ‘Disgrace’, and there’s a bit in it where the narrator’s daughter, having been gang-raped and impregnated, asserts that she’s still going to have the baby. ‘The child of one of those men?? How will you love it?’ etc is the father’s recurrent cry, to which she responds: ‘Nature will take over’ – she’ll love it by virtue of the maternal ‘instinct’, and be a good mother because that’s how it should be. A very troubling situation all round.

      Maternal failure is still one of the most problematic issues: think of Lady Macbeth talking about dashing her baby’s brains out while it suckles (and then ‘unsex me here’, ‘take my milk for gall’). All those cases of mothers killing their children and then themselves that seem strangely rife at the moment. And, indeed, the archetypal non-nurturing ‘nanny’ Louise Woodward, supposedly ‘the most notorious criminal convicted in Massachusetts’. Then there are sort of ‘comedy’ bad mothers like Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest) and various other Hollywood figures. There’s an idea that if you’re not maternal, that’s somehow unnatural. By extension, I reckon *being* a nanny is a job-title few women relish – it’s got that association with doing what women have ‘always’ done. And the ‘manny’, of course…

      M was indeed quite problematic, but most Alphabet choices are partly made with reference to other things I’ve done or will be doing – no ‘maid’, because I’d done ‘girl’, would be doing ‘nanny’ and will be looking at virginity again. No ‘mother’ because I’d done some of the word’s nuances under Hysteria, and there’s not a great deal else to say about it that can’t be unexpectedly sprung on people under different words (Infant was a big ‘social history’ one for mother, and O, U and F all look at the science / anatomy behind it). Although I was disappointed that doing ‘Marriage’ meant I could no longer have an article beginning with Niles Crane from Frasier: ‘I must warn you that, while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian… so there’ll be no blaming Mother today…’

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        January 20, 2011

        Talking of nurturing, good/bad mothers and psychoanalytic theorists, I’m reminded that Melanie Klein wrote of the “good breast” and the “bad breast”. I thought that there should be a range of psychoanalytic lingerie, including the Kleinian bra. (I envisaged this as having a red/black lace cup for the bad breast, and a white cup for the good breast.) The range needed to include a Freudian slip, although I never had any idea as to how that would look.

        I note that it seems customary to refer to Melanie Klein thus (including her first name) although the leading male psychoanalytic theorists generally go by their surname alone (Freud, Jung, Adler, etc.). (In fact, I can’t remember what Adler’s first name was.) Perhaps the (unconscious?) idea is to flag that Klein’s ideas are those of a woman and (for that reason) suspect. Or is this notion hysterical?

        • Hodge permalink
          January 20, 2011

          I’ve definitely seen her referred to as Klein, probably in an academic article though. Freud should really be stripped of his surname-status since he founded his dynasty of Anna Freud and Lucian Freud. Cf. also Clement Freud, of course!

          • Hodge permalink
            January 20, 2011

            btw – Kleinian bra = awesome.

          • Pet Jeffery permalink
            January 22, 2011

            Yeah, I’m sure that Klein is sometimes mentioned simply as “Klein”. What I wrote about the first name and surname was based upon the particular course I did, in which “Klein” never seemed mentioned without being prefixed with “Melanie”, whilst the male theorists seemed almost invariably to go solely by their surnames. My reading around the subject generally revealed the same thing, but I never researched the matter in a systematic way… and the first name/surname thing is not universal.

            Freud is a bit different in that only Sigmund is just “Freud” whilst Anna, Lucian and Clement all receive a first name. Of those, only Anna was a woman.

            I’ve noticed, in other contexts, that women are more likely to be cited as first name plus surname than are men. Artists are a case in point.

            And, on artists, I noticed something else that seemed interesting. I own more than 20 volumes in Taschen’s Basic Art series. (These are pleasing and inexpensive books of a little less than 100 pages, each devoted to an individual artist.) Of the volumes I own, all but two take as their frontispieces a reproduction of one of the artist’s works. The two exceptions are the two female artists (Kahlo and de Lempicka). In both of these volumes, the frontispiece is a photograph of the artist. Not only is the series mostly given over to the work of men, but the exceptions are flagged with photographs of the women — placed at the start of their books.

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