Try Our Apps


90s Slang You Should Know


[dis-taf, -tahf] /ˈdɪs tæf, -tɑf/
a staff with a cleft end for holding wool, flax, etc., from which the thread is drawn in spinning by hand.
a similar attachment on a spinning wheel.
  1. a woman or women collectively.
  2. women's work.
Sometimes Offensive. noting, pertaining to, characteristic of, or suitable for a female.
See also distaff side.
Origin of distaff
before 1000; Middle English distaf, Old English distæf, equivalent to dis- (cognate with Low German diesse bunch of flax on a distaff; cf. dizen) + stæf staff1
Usage note
A distaff is the stick onto which wool or flax is wound in spinning. Since spinning was traditionally done by females, distaff took on figurative meanings relating to women or women’s work. In the sense of “female,” the noun distaff is archaic, but the adjective is in current use: distaff chores, a distaff point of view; the distaff side of the family. Women who find the term offensive are probably aware of its origin in female stereotypes. Another current use of the adjective is in reference to horses: a distaff race is for fillies or mares. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2017.
Cite This Source
Examples from the Web for distaff
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • One carried a distaff, one a ball of cord, and one a pair of shears, in imitation of the traditional three.

    Betty's Happy Year Carolyn Wells
  • This distaff, which I have taken at random, decides the fate of all who are born while I am spinning it.

  • “There is meetness in all things,” said the old lady, picking up her distaff.

    The White Rose of Langley Emily Sarah Holt
  • The door was open, and he saw a girl at work with her distaff.

    Zanoni Edward Bulwer Lytton
  • Then let the men don women's attire and take the distaff and spindle in their hands!

    True Stories of Girl Heroines Evelyn Everett-Green
  • The distaff had to be recovered before the question could be considered.

    The White Rose of Langley Emily Sarah Holt
  • When the wool has thus been prepared, it is wound about the distaff and then spun into yarn.

    Oriental Rugs Walter A. Hawley
  • On the distaff side, the thing is too obvious to need exposition.

    The American Credo George Jean Nathan
British Dictionary definitions for distaff


the rod on which flax is wound preparatory to spinning
(modifier) of or concerning women: offensive to distaff members of the audience
Word Origin
Old English distæf, from dis- bunch of flax + stæfstaff1; see dizen
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
Cite This Source
Word Origin and History for distaff

Old English distæf "stick that holds flax for spinning," from dis- "bunch of flax" (cf. Middle Low German dise, Low German diesse "a bunch of flax on a distaff;" see bedizen) + stæf "stick, staff" (see staff).

A synonym in English for "the female sex, female authority in the family," since at least the late 1400s, probably because in the Middle Ages spinning was typically done by women. St. Distaff's Day was Jan. 7, when "women resumed their spinning and other ordinary employments after the holidays" [OED].

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
Cite This Source

Word of the Day

Difficulty index for distaff

Some English speakers likely know this word

Word Value for distaff

Scrabble Words With Friends

Nearby words for distaff