By Anatoly Liberman
Straw is preceded by fresh green grass. For this reason, I will begin with grass widows. Nowadays a woman is called a grass widow whose husband had to leave home (for example, obliged to work far away from his family). Alternatively, she may be a divorced woman or a woman living apart from her husband (so in American English). In all those cases she is not really a widow, but not quite a married woman either. Why grass? A definite answer does not exist, but a few things can be said with confidence. First of all, we have to get rid of folk etymology, according to which, grass in this phrase goes back to French grace, with the whole allegedly meaning “courtesy widow.” This etymology (one can find it in respectable old dictionaries and in letters to the editor) should be ignored because exact equivalents of Engl. grass widow exist in German, Dutch, and Danish, whereas the French idiom is veuve de paille, that is, “straw widow.” In English, the most recent sense (“a woman living away from her husband”) surfaced only in 1859 with reference to India. Hence the often-repeated conjecture that the first grass widows were the wives of servicemen: while the men sweated in the heat, the women waited for them on “greener pastures.” In older texts, none of which, however, predates 1528 (OED), grass widow had a much coarser meaning, namely “a woman who lost her virginity before the wedding” and “a deserted mistress.” (Compare the definition from a 1700 dictionary; repeated in 1725). “One that pretends to have been married, but never was, yet has children.”) In this context, many European languages use the word straw. So we have three riddles. Why straw, why the substitution of grass for straw in English (Engl. straw widow has never had any currency), and why the change from “deserted mistress” to “wife temporarily separated from her husband”?
As always, one finds some suggestions in Notes and Queries. This is what Thomas Ratcliffe (sic) wrote in 1884. He said that if a man had to work for months on end at a long distance from home and his wife’s conduct “was not circumspect enough,” she was said “to be ‘out at grass’; and when her behavior was such that her next-door neighbors could not any longer bear it, a besom, mop, or broom was put outside the front door, and reared against the house wall” (the spelling has been Americanized). Nothing is more venomous than the wrath of the virtuous. We will restrain our indignation but keep in mind the allusion to being “out at grass.”
Our most solid evidence comes from Germany, where Graswitwe “grass widow” competes with Strohwitwe “straw widow.” Strohwitwe surfaced only in 1715 and has the meaning of Engl. grass widow. As noted, the earliest English citation of grass widow has been traced to 1528, while in a German document addressed to pastors, straw brides (those who cohabited with a man before the wedding) are first mentioned in 1399. Since the word for straw bride is used casually, we can assume that everybody understood it. In most probability, Germany is the country where phrases like straw widow and straw bride originated. Other languages must have borrowed it from German. The brides who came to the altar after losing their virginity (and this is the situation discussed in the 1399 document) were made to wear a straw wreath. In some places, demeaning punishments were also extended to the men (“straw bridegrooms”) who dishonored their brides. But straw wreaths are secondary: the idea of putting them on the head of a sinner came from the notion of the straw widow.
Those who thought that straw (or a bed of straw) symbolized extramarital sex, as opposed to the family bed, were probably right. A meeting between two lovers in a meadow, “out at grass,” a secret tryst, whose witnesses are the sun, flowers, and a little bird that knows how to keep secrets, is described in one of the most famous 13th century German lyrics. It contains a triumphant monologue by a love-swept maiden. We are not told about the consequences of that rendezvous. A meadow is a place of pleasure. Reference to straw deprives the situation of all its charm. The “straw widow’s” path was from joy on the grass to intercourse on a bed of straw, the humiliation of wearing a straw wreath (a relatively happy end), but more often to lifelong ostracism, exile, and occasionally death by a member of the woman’s own family (a brother, for instance), as documents show.
The riddle of grass versus straw is not insoluble. While researching the history of the word strawberry (see it in my book Word Origins…), I discovered a little known article that offers a plausible explanation of that puzzling name, attested only in English and locally in Swedish. In English dialects, straw was not too rare a synonym for grass, so that strawberry seems to have meant “grassberry, berries growing in the grass.” Regardless of whether this etymology is right, it provides a clue to the interchange between German Strohwitwe and Engl. grass widow. When English-speakers took over the German word (apparently, in the 16th century or some time earlier), they replaced straw with grass. There was no need to do so, for the noun straw would have served the purpose equally well. Perhaps the borrowing occurred in an area in which straw “grass” occurred with some regularity. Such details are beyond reconstruction. The rise of the word strawberry was also unnecessary. The most frequent name of this berry in the Germanic languages is like German Erdbeere “earth berry,” and its counterpart in Old English existed but yielded to the rare synonym that continues into the present.
Meaning can deteriorate or be ameliorated. As a rule, words meaning “girl; woman,” if they change, tend to acquire negative connotations, for example, from “the loved one,” “maiden,” or “lass” to “prostitute.” This is what happened to whore (that is, hore, for w was never pronounced in it, and the modern spelling, modeled on what, when, where, which, why, is absurd: compare German Hure), a cognate of Latin carus “dear.” But unexpectedly, grass widow went up rather than down: from “discarded mistress” to “woman living away from her husband.”
We should now throw a quick glance at straw man. In English books, it turned up at the end of the 16th century and designated “scarecrow.” The development from “scarecrow” to “a figure of straw; a sham substitute for a real man” poses no problems. It has been suggested that straw widow, in its German guise, derives from straw man, for German Strohmann also exists. According to this hypothesis, to the extent that a straw man is not a real man, a straw widow is not a real widow. But chronology militates against this idea: Strohwitwe precedes Strohmann by many centuries. In numerous rituals, human-looking figures made of straw were burned and thus substituted for real persons. French homme de paille “man of straw” may have served as a model for the Germanic word. It appears that straw man and grass widow (or even “straw widow”) have nothing to do with each other. This is fine. In our liberated times, grass widows are supposedly quite happy the way they are.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”