The Grammarphobia Blog

The flip side of distaff

Q: If the “distaff side” represents the female, what’s the word for the male side?

A: Today the default sides are “male” and “female.” Although “distaff” can be found in most dictionaries, it reminds me of smelling salts and whalebone stays.

The word “distaff” dates back to the 11th century, when it meant a staff, about a yard or so long, wound with unspun flax or wool fibers.

The “dis” in “distaff” is believed to come from an old Germanic word (diesse) for a bunch of unspun flax. Wisps of material were teased and pulled from the distaff, twisted, then wound onto a spindle.

The word “distaff” has been used since the 14th century as a symbol of women’s work. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for this usage going back to Chaucer and Shakespeare.

The term has been used since the late 15th century for female in general, as in “distaff side,” meaning the female line of descent or simply things female. A related term, “spindle-side,” has also been used to refer to the female line.

Now, on to your question: is there a male version of “distaff side”? To my great surprise, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) does indeed have a male version of this expression: “spear side.” Yikes!

My 50-year-old Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed) includes “spear side” and “spear kin,” and describes them as opposites of “distaff side” and “spindle side.”

The OED says the expression “spear side” comes from the Old English spere-healfe (in Anglo-Saxon times healfe could mean side). A citation from around 885 in King Alfred’s will refers to leaving land on the sperehealfe or spinhealfe — that is, the “spear side” or “spindle side.”

The dictionary also has more recent citations, dating from 1861, that refer to leaving one’s estate “on the spear-side” or inheriting qualities “from a grandfather on the spear side.”

Now, it’s time for me to lay down my spear and go for a spin.

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