A Distaff Laugh
“She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hands grasp the spindle.” -Proverbs 31:19
While having family worship at our table one morning this week with Miriam’s parents (affectionately known as Papa and Hoo-Hoo, the latter tag bestowed upon Grandma by young grandchildren for her habit of calling “Hoo-Hoo!” when entering the house), we were reading the last chapter of Proverbs about the excellent wife and came upon the above verse. The question arose over “What is a distaff?” Given that the context is talking about the industrious nature of the wife and mother spoken of in this passage, and the obvious reference to weaving or sewing in the second part of the verse, we concluded that the distaff must have been a part of a loom for weaving and went on.
This morning Miriam’s mother told us she had looked it up in the dictionary, and this is the interesting definition as given by Merriam-Webster:
distaff – “1 a : a staff for holding the flax, tow, or wool in spinning b : woman’s work or domain 2 : the female branch or side of a family.”
As we discussed especially the “1.b.” and “2” definitions, we reasoned that so associated was the woman in her working with weaving cloth and clothing her family that the instrument used to hold the materials for spinning became synonymous with both the woman’s work and even her side of the family. A Google search confirmed these suspicions:
A distaff is ‘a staff with a cleft end for holding wool, flax, etc., from which the thread is drawn in spinning by hand’. It can also be a simliar attachment on a spinning wheel. A dis is a bunch of flax. The word distaff first appeared in English around the year 1000. We find it in Chaucer (e.g., in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: “And Malkyn with a dystaf in hir hand”) and in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (“Tradesmen left their shops, women their distaves”). There was also an expression “to have tow on one’s distaff” meaning ‘to have work in hand or trouble in store,’ as in the “Miller’s Tale”: “He hadde moore tow on his distaf Than Gerueys knew.” (Tow is the fiber of flax or jute prepared for spinning.)
Since women were the ones who did the spinning, the meaning of distaff was extended to mean ‘woman’s work’. This sense also goes back to the Canterbury Tales. In the “Monk’s Prologue” we find, “She rampeth in my face And crieth…I wol haue thy knyf And thou shalt haue my distaf and go spynne.” In King Lear Goneril says: “I must change names at home, and give the distaff into my husband’s hands,” i.e., ‘I must become the soldier and leave my husband to do the spinning’. Shakespeare also used the word in Cymbeline: “Their owne noblenesse which could have turn’d a distaff to a lance.” The distaff is contrasted with the sword, women’s work of spinning contrasted with men’s work of fighting.
The day after Twelfth Night was called distaff’s day”: that was the day on which women resumed their spinning and ordinary household tasks after the Christmas holidays. Herrick wrote a poem called “St. Distaff’s Day.”
So the woman’s side of the family was known as the distaff side, and the man’s side was the sword side. Of course, many would take exception to this distinction today, for the article I quoted from above ends with this warning, “Be careful using distaff as a synonym for ‘female’. Some women might find it offensive — especially if they know the origin of the word.” However, in the age when the Biblical roles of men and women were considered honorable, referring to the female as distaff would not have been seen as derogatory but as a symbol of her noble and caring work. A Biblical encyclopedia said that the woman held the distaff under her left arm as the fibers were pulled from it in the spinning process. Thus, to use distaff to refer to the woman would imply she was a source of constant supply to her husband and family, which is exactly the picture given in Proverbs 31.
Of course, with Miriam’s parents there, we had some fun with this as well. You will understand why the older grandchildren and I will from now on always introduce Papa and Hoo-Hoo as our “distaff relatives.” You will now know that it is not that they suffer from some disease or condition, nor that they are only related to us in some strange way. Rather, it will actually be a compliment, as in Miriam they have answered for me the question of Proverbs 31:10 and made me rejoice in the distaff by my side.