The Happiness Connection  

A new spin on spinster

With the wedding season just around the corner, I would like to devote this week’s column to the word spinster.

When I got married at the age of 29, this is the word used to describe me on the legal documents. My husband was, of course, a bachelor.

Why is it that one term is considered derogatory and the other a compliment?

In 2005, England and Wales stopped using the terms spinster and bachelor on marriage registrations. They have abolished it in favour of the term single.

I like that a lot. It is the same word for both men and women, has no age connotation, and is emotionally neutral.

To my knowledge, British Columbia still uses the term spinster.

Where does the word come from? You only need to look at its root to discover that.

Spinster comes from the word spin. The word first entered the English language in the mid-1300s. At that time, men who spun were spinners and women were spinsters.

At some point over the next hundred or so years, the suffixes stopped being gender specific.

A brewster is a beer maker, webster a weaver, teamster was originally a wagon driver. He controlled a team of horses.

I’ve even had a few friends over the years give me the nickname Reenster. It makes no sense, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

How did spinster go from meaning someone who spins to describing an old maid?

By 1719, the term was used generically for women who were unmarried and likely never to marry because of their age.

What happened?

Perhaps because most spinsters were women, the word began to be applied exclusively to females.

When a spinster was married, she had better economic opportunities through her husband’s contacts. She commonly stopped spinning. She might instead get a loom and begin to weave.

As a result, most spinsters were single women.

That makes sense, but how did the term become derogatory? I mean, have you ever heard someone use the term “eligible spinster?”

Think back to the historical path for women. They were meant to get married and have babies. Sex or motherhood before marriage was strictly frowned upon.

If women didn’t get married and reproduce, they were a disappointment. They were brought up believing that was their only acceptable destiny.

Being unmarried carried with it a lot of shame for women.

There were many reasons for women not to get married. After wars, the number of men available plummeted. Dowries, or money and goods that would be given to the husband, were hard for many to accumulate.

I’m sure there were women who were self-sufficient and simply didn’t want to marry.

Society didn’t care about the reasons. If you were an unmarried woman, you were substandard.

I think much of the derogatory feeling that accompanies the word spinster has been created by women through the ages. They were brought up to believe they had to get married.

If they didn’t, they had failed.

Even last century, when women were able to attend university, they were thought to be going for their M.R.S. degree. There were a lot of eligible bachelors at these institutes of learning.

This conversation came up a few days ago when I was talking with my friend, Shannon. She had read something by an author who was trying to “take back” the term spinster and empower it.

She wanted to give it a positive spin, so to speak.

It is a little like the word queer. We were all told that the term was derogatory and to stop using it.

Now, it is being uttered loudly and proudly.

I think the terms bachelor and spinster should be updated on marriage documents. Single is just as descriptive and applies to all unmarried people.

I would also like to see spinster take a leaf out of queer’s book. If you are getting married and the term spinster is still being used, spin it some love.

You are the creator of your reality. You have been spinning the threads of your life into the world you are currently in. You have spun yourself a loving and committed partner.

There is nothing shabby or shameful about that.

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About the Author

Reen Rose is an experienced, informative, and engaging speaker, author, and educator. She has worked for over three decades in the world of education, teaching children and adults in Canada and England.

Research shows that happy people are better leaders, more successful, and healthier than their unhappy counterparts, and yet so many people still believe that happiness is a result of their circumstances.

Happiness is a choice. Reen’s presentations and workshops are designed to help you become robustly happy. This is her term for happiness that can withstand challenge and change.

Reen blends research-based expertise, storytelling, humour, and practical strategies to both inform and inspire. She is a Myers Briggs certified practitioner, a Microsoft Office certified trainer and a qualified and experienced teacher.

Email Reen at [email protected]

Check out her websites at www.ReenRose.com, or www.ModellingHappiness.com

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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