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Spinster – Podictionary Word of the Day

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The very first reference to that legendary activist Robin Hood appears in 1362 in a work credited to William Langland and known as The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman.

William Langland was a populist sort of guy—which is probably why he mentions Robin Hood.  In any case Piers Plowman was popular enough in its time that scholars don’t have to fight for elbow room to examine it today, because lots of copies were made back then so that quite a number still survive.

That was a time before the printing press though, so all of those copies were hand written.

When documents are copied by hand, sometimes there are changes between the original and the copy.  This must have happened to such an extent with Piers Plowman that scholars have quite a challenge in trying to figure out which version is the more original.

Of course the reason that Robin Hood and Piers Plowman make it into today’s podcast is that this is also the document that first mentions spinsters, making the word about 650 years old.

Spin is the important element here, since at first spinsters were young women whose main labor was to work at spinning flax or sheep’s-wool into tread or yarn.

Spinster was almost like a professional title similar to baker or tailor.

Married women could certainly be spinsters.  As a matter of fact almost all women spun whenever their hands were free of other chores.  They’d spin as they gossiped and they’d spin as they walked to some other task.

This was before the industrial revolution and so without all that spinning there would have been no fabric.

Spinning was such an important activity that according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable a girl was not thought fit to be a wife until she had spun herself linen sufficient to cover her body, table, and bed.

With this emphasis on maidens learning to spin, by the 1600s women who remained maidens, seemingly perpetually preparing for marriage, gave a new meaning to the word spinster; someone who never married.


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

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