A favorite of people who actually say “eschew.”

Dear Word Detective: So I am sitting with my sister-in-law and made a comment about the word “distaff.” She said she never heard of it and I explained the definition, but realized it is a strange word. Where did that term come from? — Bob M.

I agree that “distaff” is a strange word, and I’ll raise you by saying that I have always found it a deeply creepy word. As a term meaning “of or pertaining to the female realm,” it’s right up there with “little lady” and “better half” in my book. To me, “distaff” reeks of lame greeting cards, smarmy sportscasters, and faux-macho intellectuals who call their girlfriends “my lady.” “Distaff” is strange uncles in musty cardigans sucking Sen-Sen while they ask you how school is going, unfunny Reader’s Digest jokes, and public-radio pedants. “Distaff” is claustrophobic, cutesy and vaguely menacing all at once. It’s a Ned Flanders word, a Lawrence Welk locution, and it gives me the wimwams. Can we pick a different word?

OK, rant over. We must be scientific. Well, “distaff” certainly has a bit of interesting history to it. It first appeared in English around the year 1000, and crops up in both Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and several of Shakespeare’s plays. Though not as popular as it once was, “distaff” still gets more than one-half million hits on Google.

The “staff” of “distaff” is just that, a long staff with a cleft end. In the Middle Ages weaving was an important home industry, and the purpose of the “distaff” was to hold the wool or flax (“dis” or “dise”) and prevent it from tangling as it was drawn into the loom. As women did almost all the spinning in those days, by the late 14th century the “distaff” had become an emblem of women’s place in the social order, and in a marriage the woman’s family became known as “the distaff side.” Interestingly, there was no corresponding term in English for the groom’s family until the 19th century, when “spear side” and “sword side” (imported from German) became briefly popular.

“Distaff” became weirdly popular in mass media in the mid-20th century, but began to fade in the late 1960s when the practice of labeling half the human race with a word drawn from medieval menial labor began to strike a lot of folks as obnoxious. Of course, that perception might have come a bit sooner if men had been saddled with a similarly demeaning term from the git-go (perhaps “the sweaty side” or “the hog-herder side”).

One of the last holdouts of “distaff” in common use is the world of horse racing, where races composed only of female horses are known as “distaffs.” And “Sen-Sen,” in case you’re wondering, is a “breath freshening product” first produced in the late 19th century and still sold to strange uncles today.

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