Printable Version
Pronunciation: spin-stêr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. An unmarried woman beyond the usual marrying age. 2. (Archaic) Someone who occupies him- or herself spinning thread.

Notes: Spinster has taken on a meaning beyond "bachelor woman". In the 20th century it came to refer to an older unmarried childless woman who was usually unusually uptight and repressed. Spinster was originally used for both sexes, like archaic webster "weaver", baxter "baker", and brewster "brewer", so a double feminine form popped up, spinstress, which today is even rarer than spinster.

In Play: It is interesting that only unmarried women have a disparaging word for them, not unmarried men: "At the turn of the 20th century women over 20 were considered spinsters, and bachelors over 20 were subject to mockery." Until 2005, it was a legal term designating the occupation of unmarried women in Britain. Legal documents listed "John Doe, carpenter" and "Jane Doe, spinster".

Word History: Today's Good Word is a purely Germanic word (unborrowed) going back to Proto-Germanic spen-wo-, source also of Danish spinde, Dutch spinnen, and German spinnen. The Proto-Germanic word comes from PIE (s)pen-/(s)pon- "to stretch, spin", which also produced spider and spindel in English with the Fickle S, and pensive and ponder—thinking for a long stretch—without it. Pen/pon- also became English pansy, borrowed from French pensée "thought, remembrance", the past participle of penser "to think". (Now let's all give a round of applause to Jan Arps of Greensboro, North Carolina, for submitting today's unsettlingly Good Word some time ago.)

Dr. Goodword,

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