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shameless pleading

Distaff

A favorite of people who actually say “eschew.”

Dear Word Detective: So I am sitting with my sister-in-law and made a comment about the word “distaff.” She said she never heard of it and I explained the definition, but realized it is a strange word. Where did that term come from? — Bob M.

I agree that “distaff” is a strange word, and I’ll raise you by saying that I have always found it a deeply creepy word. As a term meaning “of or pertaining to the female realm,” it’s right up there with “little lady” and “better half” in my book. To me, “distaff” reeks of lame greeting cards, smarmy sportscasters, and faux-macho intellectuals who call their girlfriends “my lady.” “Distaff” is strange uncles in musty cardigans sucking Sen-Sen while they ask you how school is going, unfunny Reader’s Digest jokes, and public-radio pedants. “Distaff” is claustrophobic, cutesy and vaguely menacing all at once. It’s a Ned Flanders word, a Lawrence Welk locution, and it gives me the wimwams. Can we pick a different word?

OK, rant over. We must be scientific. Well, “distaff” certainly has a bit of interesting history to it. It first appeared in English around the year 1000, and crops up in both Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and several of Shakespeare’s plays. Though not as popular as it once was, “distaff” still gets more than one-half million hits on Google.

The “staff” of “distaff” is just that, a long staff with a cleft end. In the Middle Ages weaving was an important home industry, and the purpose of the “distaff” was to hold the wool or flax (“dis” or “dise”) and prevent it from tangling as it was drawn into the loom. As women did almost all the spinning in those days, by the late 14th century the “distaff” had become an emblem of women’s place in the social order, and in a marriage the woman’s family became known as “the distaff side.” Interestingly, there was no corresponding term in English for the groom’s family until the 19th century, when “spear side” and “sword side” (imported from German) became briefly popular.

“Distaff” became weirdly popular in mass media in the mid-20th century, but began to fade in the late 1960s when the practice of labeling half the human race with a word drawn from medieval menial labor began to strike a lot of folks as obnoxious. Of course, that perception might have come a bit sooner if men had been saddled with a similarly demeaning term from the git-go (perhaps “the sweaty side” or “the hog-herder side”).

One of the last holdouts of “distaff” in common use is the world of horse racing, where races composed only of female horses are known as “distaffs.” And “Sen-Sen,” in case you’re wondering, is a “breath freshening product” first produced in the late 19th century and still sold to strange uncles today.

7 comments to Distaff

  • Erin

    Are those half-million hits talking about women, or about, y’know, distaffs? Wrist distaffs are popular with drop spindle spinners, while a lot of spinning wheels for sale today have optional distaffs to attach to them. There are pages on how to dress distaffs, pages on how to spin from distaffs, pages of people selling handmade distaffs. For comparison, “scutching” gets 147,000 hits on Google, and far fewer people involved in the fiber arts are doing scutching than are using a distaff.

  • john

    I am afraid I have to disagree with the origin of the word Distaff, it was and has always been a tool used to hold wool or flax etc for the spinner. There are many different types and styles, for example free standing or ones that tuck in the belt etc. Flax distaffs differ from ones used for wool they usualy have a cone like bit at the top to hold the flax. Nothing to do with weaving

  • Lowell Thomas

    Speaking of “public radio pedants”, your first paragraph strikes me as highly pedantic. I fail to see that ‘distaff’ evokes all the dubious images you suggest, but that’s just me.

  • We live in a mechanized, tech world very different from our ancestors. Women spent hours every day spinning. Before there were the pump style spinning wheel we think of today, there was the walking wheel, and before that the drop spindle. Probably many more. So with all these hours of work stories started to be told to children or family….there are over 1000 fairy tales that have a spinning wheel featured. You can see why the spinning wheel and parts of it became synonymous with a woman.

    In colonial times in the North America the British taxed the Colonies by the family by a large amount of spun wool. The British had just started having mechanized looms and needed great quantities of spun wool. ( It takes 3 women full spinning full time to provide enough fiber to keep the weaver busy! The weaver who had the loom, was a man!) Anyway in order to provide that much wool the family would get an unmarried woman,( often we think of the old maid aunt, who had no provision from a husband.)
    And she would spin wool all year long. She was called a Spinster, which defined her job. It later was used to define an unmarried woman.

  • Joanne Wilson

    I heard the term ‘Distaff’ applied to a female character derived from a male one – for example Bat-Girl is a distaff of Batman or Silk is distaff of Spider-Man.

    It may be a tad rude to use the word – but in the case of Silk it’s actually literally what she is a derivative feminisation of Peter Parker; bitten by the same spider and working for the same company for example as Peter did.

    Though perhaps there needs to be an appropriate word for a Male Character derived from a female one too.

    Just though i’d chip in that other usage though as a point of possible interest.

  • Dan Mc Knight

    Kind of sorry I asked………..but enlightening

  • Marie

    ‘Distaff’ a reeking, creepy word!?! Balderdash! Smarmy? Never! Your contempt for this ‘manual labor’ is both classist and sexist. Before the advent of the spinning wheel and its introduction to Europe hand spinning was a time consuming, essential task that hadn’t changed in over a thousand years. Even before the Common Era an industrious woman worthy ‘to be praised’ was one who took up the distaff, no matter how large her household or her station in life. Art, stained glass, illustrations, poetry, literature and song portrayed women from Eve to the Virgin Mary to Queens with a distaff as a symbol of honor and industry and womanhood. By the early middle ages ‘distaff’ was no longer just a term for a textile tool.

    When ‘Distaff Side’ is put into an Amazon search there’s a plethora of results: A book on women in Homer’s Odessey, a cookbook authored by women in the Atlanta Braves organization, among others, and the book ‘Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare’s Plays’ is reviewed as ‘Shakespeare’s distaff side’. In genealogy the distaff side are the matrilineal ancestors – the women.

    So rest your rant and look past your leftover sexist ideas- distaff is a perfectly strong word, and a symbol of women whose labor was essential to their households, family and community.

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