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Sep 6, 2010
This week's theme
Words related to spinning

This week's words
distaff
spinster
dizen
subtile
homespun

Girl with spindle and distaff
Girl with spindle and distaff
Art: William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

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A.Word.A.Day
with Anu Garg

What's common among a disc jockey, a spider, a PR agent, and a cricket bowler? They all spin. But this week we are talking about a different kind of spinning, the original kind: the spinning of yarn.

Before modern textile mills, and before specialization, people used to spin yarn and weave cloth at home. Even though a typical home doesn't have raw flax and wool any more, that era has left its imprint on the language.

By looking at these terms in the English language we can tell who used to do the spinning, and what was thought about people related to the job. This week we'll see five words relating to spinning that are now mostly used figuratively.

distaff

PRONUNCIATION:
(DIS-taf)

MEANING:
adjective:
Of or relating to women.
noun:
1. A staff for holding flax, wool, etc. for spinning.
2. Women considered collectively.
3. A woman's work or domain.

ETYMOLOGY:
From Old English dis- (bunch of flax) + staef (stick).

NOTES:
A distaff is a staff with a cleft for holding wool, flax, etc. from which thread is drawn while being spun by hand. In olden times, spinning was considered a woman's work, so distaff figuratively referred to women. Distaff side (also spindle side) refers to the female side of a family. The corresponding male equivalent of the term is spear side (also sword side).

USAGE:
"Volvo's gender politics are distinctly distaff, with safety and familial obligation easily trumping the sorts of values cherished by the aroused arrows of the world."
Dan Neil; Herr Doktor, Your Ride is Here; Los Angeles Times; Mar 3, 2004.

See more usage examples of distaff in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful. -E.E. Cummings, poet (1894-1962)

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