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distaff

[dis-taf, -tahf] /ˈdɪs tæf, -tɑf/
noun
1.
a staff with a cleft end for holding wool, flax, etc., from which the thread is drawn in spinning by hand.
2.
a similar attachment on a spinning wheel.
3.
Archaic.
  1. a woman or women collectively.
  2. women's work.
adjective
4.
Sometimes Offensive. noting, pertaining to, characteristic of, or suitable for a female.
See also distaff side.
Origin of distaff
1000
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.
Dictionary.com Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2017.
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Examples from the Web for distaff
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • They may find they have more tow on their distaff than they know how to spin.

    The White Company Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Thus are they represented on a medal, each with a distaff in her hand.

  • Then Wainamoinen took the pieces of her distaff and set to work.

  • The improvement on the distaff and spindle was the spinning wheel.

    Textiles

    William H. Dooley
  • What followed the distaff and spindle in the development of spinning?

    Textiles

    William H. Dooley
  • This distaff, which I have taken at random, decides the fate of all who are born while I am spinning it.

  • She answered the third without hesitation, that it was a distaff.

  • The door was open, and he saw a girl at work with her distaff.

    Zanoni Edward Bulwer Lytton
British Dictionary definitions for distaff

distaff

/ˈdɪstɑːf/
noun
1.
the rod on which flax is wound preparatory to spinning
2.
(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
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Word Origin and History for distaff
n.

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
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14
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