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The Curious Origin of the Word 'Spinster'

Different dictionaries define ‘spinster’ in slightly different ways, but most indicate that the term is a derogatory one. As it is defined today, the general idea is that a spinster is a female who is single and who is also past the age that is considered to be reasonable for marriage.

This doesn’t necessarily mean an old unmarried woman since the normal marrying age for females varies greatly by area, region, culture, era, and so forth. For example, in the US, the normal marrying age for females today is 17 or 18. A young woman who was 19 and unmarried would technically be a spinster, by today’s definition of the word.

However, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was 14 when she married Joseph and could have been considered to be a spinster when she got married (by the current definition) since most females were married by the time they were 13. This would be almost unthinkably young by today’s standards, but it was commonplace 2,000 years ago. Of course, it should also be mentioned that at that time, a person who was over 50 was considered to be very old, too.

The point is that ‘spinster’ is now used as a derogatory name for a female who is older than the normal marrying age and who is still single. Often, the word is used for older women who have never been married, though this isn’t required even today.

“Spinster” originally had a substantially different meaning and it wasn’t derogatory in any way.

In the 1300’s, a common profession involved spinning wool to produce thread or yarn to make clothing, blankets, and what-have-you. Most of the people who practiced this profession were females and for obvious reasons, these women were called spinsters. The word defined what they did for a living.

Many or most of the women who were spinsters were also single, so over time, ‘spinster’ came to be applied to any single woman who made a living at any regular profession.

More time passed and the word came to be applied to any single working woman who was beyond the usual age of marriage. Eventually, even having a profession was left out of the definition. That brings us to the definition that is in use today, often in a derogatory way.

Still, originally, a spinster was a woman who spun thread, usually with a spinning wheel. It wasn’t a derogatory word and in fact, the profession was a reasonably important one. Without spinsters, a lot of people would have been without clothing.

This all goes to show how the meaning of a word can change quite a bit over 700 years.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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14 Comments

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  1. I am afraid Rex that I am only writing a comment because of the older lady and her spinning wheel. She reminds me of my maternal grandmother who had a spinning wheel in her attic and used it for wool spinning mostly of course. Then she would knit socks, mitts and hats for everybody she knew. The only thing I do not know is where she got the wool from or maybe she told me and I simply forgot it. I always wanted to have that spinning wheel for myself but unfortunately it got lost after she and grandpa sold the house and moved in a nursing home. But I remember when she was in that attic and she was spinning and spinning to her heart’s content and believe me she was no spinster. That goes to show that words can very well change throughout he years.

    • That is a very interesting memory to have. My grandmother also had a spinning wheel, but I never got to see her use it. By the time I was born, she had arthritis in her hands and using her fingers and hands to guide the wool was too painful. She and my grandfather moved to Arizona, hoping the dry climate would help with the arthritis. It did. When they moved back 18 years later, she no longer had arthritis, but she’d given away the spinning wheel and never got another, so I never got to see her spin.

      • Well, let me tell you Rex, it was quite the experience hearing the spinning wheel whirling when she was upstairs in the attic and even watching her once or twice. I enjoyed it although I had a little bit of a problem with the wool that she was using as it was raw and very itchy and hard on the fingers. Maybe that is the real reason why they called the spinning ladies “spinsters” because their fingers were being worked to the bone. But I still would have liked to get that spinning wheel of my grandmother, maybe not to spin wool only but as a conversation piece, a decorative piece and a real artifact.

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