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AWADmail Issue 428

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

From: Monroe Thomas Clewis (mtc mtclex.com)
Subject: distaff
Def: Of or relating to women.

Historically in Europe Jan 7, the last day of Christmas, was celebrated in the folk calendar with a wink as St Distaff's Day. Women and men (translate maids and ploughboys) were licensed to play pranks on one another in unsaintly fashion as captured in a poem by Sir Robert Herrick:

Partly work and partly play
You must on St Distaff's Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then come home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give Saint Distaff all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.

Today inviting the sexes to play pranks on one another would probably result not in merriment but a lawsuit. Have we "progressed", or have we begun to take ourselves too seriously?

From: Jan Upton (j0upto01 gwise.louisville.edu)
Subject: Distaff

Distaff is a time-honored word in horse racing. A distaff race is limited to female horses -- fillies, mares, or both. Here in the Bluegrass State, we cherish our lovely thoroughbred ladies.

From: John Sommer, MD (jlambertsommer gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--distaff

Annually we three siblings and spouses get together and go someplace interesting. One year we drove our van in the maritime provinces of Canada. In Acadia, my sister's husband, a professor of history and college president, was reading Longfellow's "Evangeline".

In "Part the First, Canto I", he read: "Matrons and maidens sat in snow-white caps and kittles/Scarlet and blue and green, with distaffs spinning the golden/Flax for the gossiping looms, whose noisy shuttles..."

I was a trustee of The Textile Museum in Washington DC, the Secretary General of the International Conference on Oriental Carpets, and had been in Central Asia many times, etc. When I heard "distaffs spinning", I was shocked. Being the driver, I reacted noticeably when I heard this. Longfellow? Back then no one would question the great Longfellow! In the 21st century, however, I did. Unlike people in the rest of the world, people in this country, to this day, seem NOT to know the difference between a distaff and a spindle. The distaff is a static thing for storing an unspun hank of material. The spindle spins. The industrial revolution was NOT the only thing that changed weaving and the steps that led up to it.

From: Jan Bottcher (jan.bottcher gmail.com)
Subject: Spinster
Def: 1. A woman who has remained single beyond the usual age of marrying. 2. In law, a woman who has never married. 3. A woman whose occupation is spinning.

I am a woman who bought my first home in 1983 before I was married. To my consternation, I was referred to as "a spinster" in all the papers. When I asked my attorney what it would say if I were a man, he replied "an unmarried person". Alas, not a spear, sword, or aroused arrow...

Email of the Week - (Brought to you by One Up! - Are you wicked/smart?)

From: Ariannah Armstrong (ariannah gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--spinster

I was instantly fascinated with this word. I am married, but this year in January, on the eve of our wedding anniversary, I took up spinning with spindles, and it's been the start of a hobby which I know I will love for years to come.

As a result, one of the common jokes in our household is that I am happily married and a spinster at the same time :)

From: Leah Wilder (wilderl umkc.edu)
Subject: spinster definition

I would like to see 'spinster' updated to a woman OR a man who has never married. Why does this word have to be directed towards women only? Then what is an unmarried man called? This meaning needs to be updated in the 21st century. Frustrating.

From: Gene Throwe (gthrowe aacn.nche.edu)
Subject: This Week's Theme

I am so excited that this week we explored the wonderful world of spinning! The spinning, dying, knitting, and crocheting of yarn has seen a wonderful resurgence in the past several years. Just like the Arts and Crafts period over a hundred years ago, some people want to preserve some of the lost arts such as these. Unlike the Arts and Crafts Movement, Many of us embrace modern technology to make fiber arts easily accessible. Ravelry.com is a wonderful source for those looking for information on spinning, dying, knitting, and crocheting.

What is interesting is that many spinners and dyers are actually men, and these fields are no longer the domain of women only. There are some men's fiber arts groups around the country, like DC Men Knit that I lead. Again, thank you so much for highlighting such a wonderful hobby/art!

From: Jack Murphy (jackmurphy27 gmail.com)
Subject: Spinster

Some years ago while transcribing ship passenger lists for the web-based Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild, I noticed that unmarried "women" as young as 14 were described as being "spinsters".

From: Brian Holt (brian amicia.co.uk)
Subject: RE: A.Word.A.Day--spinster

I remember hearing the folk singer Julie Felix define the difference between a spinster and a bachelor girl. A bachelor girl is someone who's never been married. A spinster is someone who's never been married or anything.

From: Curtis Brown (curtisb722 aol.com)
Subject: subtile
Def: Subtle: delicate; fine; not obvious; skillful.

Subtile to subtle suffered the same fate as in the change from stabile to stable, and probably in future from labile to lable. It is an unavoidable frequent-use trend in all languages (also known as the lazy-lips syndrome).

From: K Kunkel (kkunkel mbgsd.org)
Subject: homespun as a noun
Def: Unsophisticated; unpolished; rustic.

I live in Central Pennsylvania. Here, when talking to older generations, homespun is a noun. My grandmother lived on a farm around the turn of the century where she was taught to spin flax. The rolls of fabric left for descendants are called homespun, as in "That is homespun" or "Who has the homespun from Grandma?" Obviously, the adjective just broadened, assimilated the noun it modified and migrated to a new part of speech in the vernacular.

From: Gene Racicot (gene.racicot shaw.ca)
Subject: Spinning

Victoria, BC, Canada has a series of monuments themed on the Coast Salish spindles.

From: Susan Karcz (skarcz comcast.net)
Subject: spinning & weaving words

Fun theme! One of my favorite quirks of English is illustrated by two weaving terms: weaver (male) and webster (female). This pattern is also seen in baker (male) and baxter (female) and in brewer (male) and brewster (female).

When I feel inclined to read poetry, I take down my dictionary. The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as the poetry of sentences. The author may arrange the gems effectively, but their shape and lustre have been given by the attrition of ages. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., writer and physician (1809-1894)

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