Giving a Word a Different Spin

It’s thankfully somewhat less commonly used today, but the term “spinster” isn’t a nice thing to call someone. The word, per Merriam-Webster, is often used to mean “a woman who seems unlikely to marry” or, more derogatorily, “an unmarried woman and especially one past the common age for marrying.” Calling a woman a “spinster” is saying that she’s not married, there’s probably a reason why, and that reason isn’t good (or going to change). It’s not a nice word — or usually one — to call someone.

It wasn’t always that way, though. For a while, “spinster” wasn’t intended negatively — and it was even used in many legal documents.

Putting aside the negative connotations, the male equivalent of a “spinster” is a “bachelor,” which (in this sense) simply means “an unmarried man.” That term comes from the Middle Ages, derived from an Old French term meaning “a young squire in training for knighthood.” As feudalism waned, the term became broader, applying to all unmarried men. It’s a term we still use today, without much if any negative connotation — the term “eligible bachelor” is typically a way to compliment a young, attractive, unmarried man.

“Spinster” also comes from the Middle Ages, but unlike “bachelor” — which reflects the bevy of potential career paths forward for a young man — the word is defined by the job performed. According to Merriam-Webster, the term originally “referred to a woman who spun thread and yarn,” and had little if anything to do, directly, with the person’s marital status (and only related to gender due to the –ster suffix). At the time, finding work as a spinster was rather easy, as the demand for the service was high. Unfortunately, it didn’t pay all that much relative to other occupations. And without the resources of a husband, unmarried women often found themselves settling for work as a spinster. But most importantly for our purposes, as Smithsonian explains, “in an age where all clothing had to be made by hand and women were empowered as part of guilds, being a spinster wasn’t a bad thing.”

Being a “spinster,” though, became part of the identity of many single women in a very real sense. As the Middle Ages waned, European nations began developing a new way to assign surnames to people. Instead of being “son of” or “daughter of” one’s father’s name, your trade or profession became your last name. That’s why, today, we have Millers and Bakers and Smiths. For the unwed woman turning wool into yarn, the term “Spinster” filled that role as well. As a result, this designation spread into legal parlance. Per the Oxford English Dictionary, by the 1600s, phrases such as “the spinster of the parish” would appear in funeral notices and other legal documents.

It wasn’t for at least another century or so that the term “spinster” took on its negative connotation. Only in the 1700s did the term begin to be associated with the similarly derogatory term “old maid” and its use shot up over the next 150 or so years. According to a review of scholarly articles by Jstor, “when social hygiene and the study of sexuality came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century, spinsters came under fire” even further — women, at the time, were seen as homemakers, not wage earners. Spinsters, therefore, represented everything a woman should aspire not to be — even though initially, they were models for what one should do if she decided not to marry.

Bonus fact: If you don’t know of the painting Graham Wood’s “American Gothic” by name, you may nonetheless know it by description. (Either way, you can see it here.) The oil painting is a cultural icon and is often described as a farmer and his wife, looking sternly in front of their farmhouse, but that’s not the case. According to the Art Institue of Chicago, where the painting now resides, “American Gothic depicts a farmer and his spinster daughter posing before their house, whose gabled window and tracery, in the American gothic style, inspired the painting’s title.” (As an aside, per the Institute, “in fact, the models were the painter’s sister and their dentist.” Oh, and the sister was married.)

From the Archives: As the World Turns: Yesterday, bad weather in Florida caused a manned spaceflight to be scuttled. That has nothing to do with the above, but it provoked a question: why do we launch spacecraft from Florida, anyway? As it turns out, it has to do with how the Earth spins.