Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale: a useful guide to the show’s terminology, from ‘Aunts’ to ‘Unwomen’

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Can’t tell your Wives from your Marthas? Not sure why everyone keeps saying ‘Blessed Be The Fruit’? Check out this handy guide to The Handmaid’s Tale’s long list of terms and sayings.     

The Handmaid’s Tale is making its long-awaited return to UK screens tonight (20 June) when the first episode of the show’s hotly anticipated fourth season airs on Channel 4 at 9pm.

To say we’re excited would be an understatement – ever since season three came to an end back in summer 2019, we’ve been desperate to find out what the future holds for June and her crew of Handmaids, after the final episode left us on such a dramatic cliffhanger.

The only problem? The world of The Handmaid’s Tale – with all its specific terminology, phrases and character types – isn’t always easy to understand, especially if you’re returning to the show after a long break or are picking it up for the first time.

So, to make your viewing experience as smooth as possible, we’ve put together this guide to all the key terms you’ll need to know to enjoy season four to the max.  

Angels: The second highest-ranking group of men in Gileadean society, the Angels are soldiers that serve on the front lines, fighting back against the rebel groups which resist Gilead rule.

Aunts: Aunts are some of the highest-ranking women in Gilead, primarily responsible for overseeing the training and management of Handmaid’s and looking after births. Unlike most women in Gilead, they’re allowed to read and write, and are also permitted to dish out punishment to the Handmaids with their signature cattle prods, which they attach to the belt which they wear on top of their modest, brown dresses.  

Banana: June’s (Elisabeth Moss) nickname for her daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), who was taken from her when she was captured trying to escape Gilead in series one.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale
Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia (one of the many Aunts in Gilead) in The Handmaid's Tale.

Blessed Be The Fruit: This is essentially ‘hello’ in Gilead speak, and it’s usually met with the response “May The Lord Open” (see below). Alongside being a greeting, it’s also meant to encourage fertility – aka, that a Handmaid will be ‘blessed’ with the ‘fruit’ of a child. Like many Gileadean phrases, it has biblical origins.

The Colonies: Located in what was once the American mid-west and south-west, The Colonies are areas of land contaminated by nuclear and/or toxic waste. In Gilead, they’re used as places to send criminals and ‘unwomen’ (types of women who do not fit into Gilead’s strict social classes, see below). Once there, these people are forced to participate in slave labour (usually the ‘cleaning’ of the polluted ground), until their deaths. 

Commanders: Short for ‘Commanders Of The Faithful’, Commanders are the highest-ranking group in Gileadean society. They’re made up exclusively of men (usually those who supported Gilead before the regime claimed power), and serve in roles such as politicians, lawmakers and military leaders.

Eyes: Unlike the Guardians (see below), the Eyes are undercover, secret police who spy on Gilead’s citizens, in order to detect any suspicious or rebellious activity. They’re also responsible for making arrests and interrogating suspects. Essentially, you don’t want to be on their bad side.

Gilead: The name of the theocratic state which has taken over much of what used to be North America. The central aims of Gileadean society are to restore traditional, biblical values and to boost the country’s birth rate by means of the Handmaids.  

Guardians: Short for ‘Guardians of the Faith,’ the Guardians are Gilead’s uniformed soldiers and police. As well as working in law enforcement, they also work as the personal bodyguards, assistants and drivers of Commanders.  

Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid's Tale
Handmaids like June (Elisabeth Moss) wear all red with a white bonnet, known as 'wings' for short.

Handmaids: A group of fertile women whose sole purpose are to provide Gilead with more children. They wear bright red dresses and white bonnets which obscure their faces (called ‘wings’), and adopt the name of their Commander (for example, June is renamed ‘Offred’ when she is ‘given’ to Fred Waterford).

Jezebels: Jezebels are women who work in various secret sex clubs and brothels across Gilead. They’re usually women who have been caught committing some kind of crime or transgression, and are given the choice between sex work or slave labour in The Colonies as a result. The clubs they work at are expressly designed for Commanders and foreign diplomats to visit – it is forbidden for other women, such as Wives and Handmaids, to enter their doors.

Little America: An area of Toronto where refugees from Gilead lead their new life in Canada. 

Marthas: Yet another ‘type’ of woman in Gilead, Marthas work as domestic servants to the Commanders and their families; they primarily clean, shop (unless they have a Handmaid in the household) and cook meals. They wear a kind of muted, greyish green, with an apron over the top of their dress.

Mayday: This is where things get interesting. Mayday are the secret resistance group working to bring down Gilead from the inside – although no one knows how many members there are or how widespread the movement may be, they perform a number of important roles, including helping people escape to Canada and gathering key information.

May The Lord Open: The standard reply to the Gileadean greeting “Blessed Be The Fruit,” it’s also meant to encourage fertility among the Handmaids.

Praise Be: Another Gileadean phrase which is used to express thanks or gratitude for something, such as the news that someone is pregnant. 

Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid's Tale
“Praise Be” is a term used to express thanks or gratitude for something, for example, after the birth of a child like Baby Nichole.

Sons Of Jacob: The group responsible for devising the structure and beliefs of Gilead, and for orchestrating the coup that led to the fall of the United States government. They’re led by a group called ‘The Committee,’ who became responsible for governing Gilead after the group’s initial plan to establish the state succeeded.

Under His Eye: Although this phrase is often used in replace of ‘goodbye’ when two Handmaids separate, it’s much more than that. While, on the surface, the phrase refers to a belief that God is always watching, it’s also reference to the fact that, in Gilead, someone is always watching your behaviour, whether that’s a Guardian, Commander or undercover Eye.

Unwomen: The complete opposite of the Commanders, Unwomen are the lowest social class in Gilead. They’re made up of women who don’t fit into Gilead’s strict social structures, including those who are old, sick or have committed a crime. They’re typically sent to The Colonies, where they’re forced to engage in slave labour until they die. 

The Wall: The Wall is a tall, brick wall which is used to display the hanging bodies of those who have committed crimes under Gilead’s law. It’s later used in a more figurative sense to describe punishment by hanging. E.g., “Stop that, or you’ll end up on The Wall”.

Wives: The name used to describe the group of women married to Gilead’s Commanders. Although they’re one of the highest-ranking groups of women in Gileadean society, they’re still relatively oppressed – they’re not allowed to read and write, and are still subject to punishment at the hands of their husbands. They wear modest clothing in a teal shade of blue. 

The Handmaid’s Tale season four starts tonight (20 June) on Channel 4 at 9pm

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.