The Spinster Etymology

Image courtesy of ITV. 

Image courtesy of ITV. 


Let's all agree before we begin that Downton Abbey is more invested in being an historical drama (and a soapy one at that) aimed at a modern audience than a social commentary. And as one journalist noted, we could get blitzed taking a drink every time someone on the show mentions the world changing with dismay or awe, because the show's conflicts rest on the tension between the traditional and the modern.

There be season three spoilers ahead.

On Edith

Edith. Poor Edith. My sympathies and emotions were entirely with her last week. How ecstatic I was for her to be in the limelight and loved! How gutted I was when she's left at the altar by a man she loves!

Image courtesy of ITV. 

Image courtesy of ITV. 

After the wedding that wasn't, Edith spends days in bed, refusing food and sobbing her little heart out. When the maid, Anna, offers to fetch the miserable thing a breakfast tray (usually reserved for married women as we're earlier told) Edith says with no end of bitterness, "I'm a useful spinster, good at helping out. That is my role, and spinsters get up for breakfast."

How tragic! Not only jilted but doomed to be a spinster! How sad I am for her, how badly I want to tell her that it will be all right, that as O'Brian tells Mary after Mr. Pamuk's untimely death, "There are plenty more fish in the sea than ever came out of it." You don't have to be a spinster. There will be someone else, Edith. Someone better. He was not worthy of your love!


Wait, back up.

By all accounts, I'm a spinster. Early usage of the term in late Middle English indicated a woman's occupation ("woman who spins") and by the 17th century was a legal status that declared a woman unmarried. Both apply to me: I spin wool (because knitting isn't weird enough) and I'm an unmarried woman. What's all this doom business?

Let's blame the folks in the early 18th century who began to use the word negatively. Even by 1920, for Edith, being a spinster spells out her failure as a woman according to social convention. It's an historically accurate response. And it sucks.

Women get to choose their roles now: woman, daughter, wife, mother, sister, Circe, Penelope, or any combination of those. Or none. Or something else. It's all valid, all worthy. It's that old question of the rules.

However, to be a spinster, to even use the term today, reveals a stigma that hasn't left our discourse about women. The connotation is still negative. As the folks at the OED note, "In modern everyday English... it is always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed." Oh, dear. This is why people look at me in horror when I use this as a self-descriptive term.

It shouldn't be that way, but it is (especially here in the south). My roommate had a similar, visceral negative reaction to the definition, but graciously pointed out that he doesn't associate all those terms with the word. Maybe I can reclaim it after all.

Social Convention Sucks

Image courtesy of ITV. 

Image courtesy of ITV. 

And so I feel for Edith, not because she's a spinster or unmarried, but because she lost someone she loved and the chance to share her life with that person. Social convention has screwed her over. From previews of the rest of the season, I get the sense that Edith will come into her own in the modern age. After all, we would expect nothing less as a modern audience.

So instead of telling her the traditional advice, I say to Edith: be a lady, take the tray, and shut up. Mourn the man you loved who left you and then move on to whatever wonderful life awaits you. I guarantee there will be love if you want it, with or without social convention.

*Thanks be to the Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers for their sneering disdain of spinsters and detailed etymological explanations of the word itself.