The Handmaid's Tale takes place in an unspeakably awful future that Margaret Atwood first envisioned in her 1985 novel of the same name. Spurred by a global plague of infertility, an extremist group called the Sons of Jacob staged a coup on the U.S. government and sent progressive American society reeling backwards to totalitarianism, organized on Old Testament principles. In addition to enforcing incredibly strict gender roles, Gilead has introduced an entirely new vocabulary for its citizens to internalize. Women must identify with their new position as Marthas, handmaids, or Wives. They must learn that the term "the Colonies" should inspire terror.
We, on the other hand, are not citizens of Gilead. We don't know why they say what they do. So if you're feeling adrift while watching The Handmaid's Tale, here's the vocabulary list you can keep coming back to.
Aunts: A class of infertile women who are in positions of power. Aunts instruct handmaids to fulfill their childbearing duties for Commanders and their Wives, and also guard Unwomen in the Colonies. Many Aunts are true believers who were involved with the cause before the official Gilead transition. Unlike other women, Aunts are permitted to read and write.
Angels: Gilead's high-ranking army of soldiers that fight in border wars and guard important places like the Rachel and Leah Center. Off camera, Angels are currently fighting the exiled American government in Anchorage, Alaska. Angels are second only to Commanders.
Birthmobile: A car that transports handmaids to another handmaid's birth.
"Blessed Be the Fruit:" Gileadean for "hello." Handmaids use this line to greet each other to encourage fertility. The common reply is, "May the Lord open."
The Ceremony: The monthly handmaid ritual meant to result in impregnation. The Commander has sex with the handmaid while the handmaid lays in the Wife's lap.
Colonies: Regions of land that have been decimated by pollution and radioactivity. "Unpeople" who don't fit into Gileadean society are sent to the Colonies to work to their deaths.
Commander: A class of powerful men who use handmaids to procreate with their Wives. Back in America, Commanders had conceived of and devised Gilead.
Econowives: Working-class women married to men not powerful enough to become Commanders. Due to exhibiting proper behavior in pre-Gilead, these women were not forced to become handmaids (had June not been an "adulteress," she would've become an Econowife). They do not have the help of Marthas.
Eyes: Short for the Eyes of God, Eyes are Gilead's force of spies and secret police. Eyes remain hidden until they drive up in their black van and make public arrests. Anyone can be an Eye, including women, who often work as informants.
Gender Traitor: Members of the LGBTQ+ community, or anyone who engages in same-sex sexual activity. This crime is punishable by hanging or being sent to the Colonies.
Guardians of the Faith: A class of Gileadean armed forces that rank below Angels. They work as drivers and checkpoint guards.
Handmaid: Fertile women who bear children for Wives and their Commanders. Women become handmaids if, in pre-Gilead, they had been divorced, married to a man who was divorced, or did not have a husband. Handmaids work for Commanders in two-year terms. If a handmaid successfully has a baby, she is spared from going to the Colonies. But if a handmaid works with three Commanders without giving birth to a successful baby, she is sent to the Colonies. They wear bright red.
Jezebel: Prostitutes who work in a secret club accessible only by Commanders and foreign ambassadors.
Keepers: Healthy babies birthed by handmaids and kept by the Wives.
Marthas: Infertile women who work as caretakers and cooks in Commanders' houses. They wear green.
Mayday: A highly secretive underground resistance group working to bring down Gilead from within. Members of the group use the word "mayday" to clue each other in. Anyone may be a member of Mayday, from Eyes to Guardians to handmaids. Mayday transports letters out of the country and works to transport people, as well.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum: A messaged carved in June's closet by the Waterfords' previous handmaid. Translated from Latin, this phrase means, "Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” The previous handmaid hanged herself.
Particicution: A form of execution in which handmaids can kill a prisoner of the state in any manner they see fit, including mass beating, stoning, or being torn to death. The word derives from "participate" and "execution."
Prayvaganza: Public religious ceremonies. Mass weddings typically take place during Prayvaganzas.
Rachel and Leah Center: The facility in which handmaids are trained and housed between assignments. It's named after the Biblical story of Rachel and Leah, which provides the framework for handmaid-Wife arrangement.
Salvaging: Executions. People who are executed are considered to be "salvaged."
Sons of Jacob: The organization that planned Gilead, and then rose up to stage a coup against the U.S. government.
Tokens: Currency for women — especially handmaids and Marthas— to use when shopping. Since women are not allowed to read, tokens contain illustrations of what they can purchase.
Unbaby: A fetus born with abnormalities that dies soon after birth. Also known as shredders.
"Under His Eye:" A greeting used for hello and goodbye.
Unwomen: Women who don't fit into the structure of Gileadean society. They're either old, sick, infertile, or have broken the law. Unwomen are sent to the Colonies to work until they die.
Wives: The wives of Commanders. It's unclear whether Wives are fertile, as most procreate using handmaids. They wear blue.
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