distaff

[dis-taf, -tahf]
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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
  1. 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.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018


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British Dictionary definitions for distaff

distaff

noun
  1. the rod on which flax is wound preparatory to spinning
  2. (modifier) of or concerning womenoffensive to distaff members of the audience

Word Origin for distaff

Old English distæf, from dis- bunch of flax + stæf staff 1; 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

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