If I were to ask you what spinster means, what would you say? My answer would be the typical one: “an unmarried woman who’s older than the perceived prime age for marriage.” And that’s what the word has come to mean, yes.
But did you know that originally it referred to any unmarried daughter, no matter how young?
Let’s look at the word itself. As soon as we pause to consider it, we see that its original meaning of “a woman who spins yarn” makes perfect sense, right? Spin is right there in it, and that -ster ending just means “one who does.” So…why is this applied to unmarried women? Well, the word dates from the 1300s, and from that time forward into nearly-modern ages, girls who weren’t yet married were expected to fill their time with something useful and productive, especially the family’s spinning.
What’s fascinating is that from the 1600s until the 1900s, spinster was actually a legal definition in England of “all unmarried women, from a viscount’s daughter downward.”
So if you were nobility, you weren’t expected to spin, hence wouldn’t be a spinster if you were unwed. But all us commoners? We were all spinsters as long as we were single! It wasn’t until 1719 that the “past her prime” connotation began to arise.
We can also note that in its technical sense of “one who spins,” it was a word that could be applied to either gender. In the 1640s, the feminine variation of spinstress also arose…and also meant “maiden lady.”
Makes you wonder what the modern equivalent would be, doesn’t it?