Q: As you may know, the word “housewife” refers (in addition to a June Cleaver wannabe) to a sewing kit, also called a “hussif” or a “hussy.” But how did “hussy” come to mean a woman of some flamboyance (my definition)?
A: Yes, “housewife” is (or rather was) another word for a sewing kit. (Our acquaintance with such domestic trivia is what comes of reading old British novels.)
The sewing-kit sense of “housewife,” a meaning that originated in the mid-18th century, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a small case or pouch for needles, thread, and other small sewing items.”
This often took the form of “a length of soft fabric, divided into pockets, that may be rolled up when not in use,” the OED adds.
There’s no explanation as to why a sewing kit was called a “housewife,” but the answer seems obvious—it contained items used by a housewife.
Perhaps for a similar reason, another word for the mistress of a household, “chatelaine,” was used in the 19th century to mean a bunch of decorative chains worn at a woman’s waist, for holding things like keys, ornaments, a watch, and small sewing articles.
The OED’s earliest citation for “housewife” to mean a sewing kit is from Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), a compendium of true-crime stories.
In this passage, a thief has surreptitiously cut the pocket from a woman’s skirts: “Upon turning the Pocket out, he found only a Thread Paper, a Housewife, and a Crown piece.”
The word for the sewing kit, as well as for the woman who used it, was also written as “huswife,” “hussive,” “hussif,” and even “hussy,” spellings that reflected alterations in the pronunciation.
Oxford provides an example of “hussy” used this way in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740): “So I … dropt purposely my Hussy.”
And here’s a citation for “hussif,” from a 19th-century collection of regionalisms:
“Hussif, that is house-wife; a roll of flannel with a pin-cushion attached, used for the purpose of holding pins, needles, and thread.” (From Edward Peacock’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, 1877.)
You asked how “hussy” got its bad reputation. It’s a long story, so we’ll begin at the beginning.
The word “housewife” was spelled “husewif” when it showed up in Sawles Warde, an early Middle English homily written around 1200:
“Inwið beoð his hinen in se moni mislich þonc to cwemen wel þe husewif aȝein godes wille” (“Indoors, both his servants have a great many miserable thoughts about how to please the housewife against God’s will”).
The OED says “housewife” originally meant pretty much what it does today: “A (typically married) woman whose main occupation is managing the general running of a household, such as caring for her family, performing domestic tasks, etc.”
However, the dictionary has this interesting note: “There is some evidence that in Middle English the word housewife in the general sense ‘housekeeper’ could be applied to both men and women.”
For example, a 1416 description of the duties of the housekeeper at a poorhouse, the OED notes, refers to the “husewyfe, man or woman.”
And the word was apparently used as a surname too, Oxford adds, pointing to names like “Richard Husewif” (1192), “Richard Huswyf” (1302), and “Johannes Hosewyfe” (1327).
But getting back to the feminine sphere, we mentioned earlier that “housewife” was spelled and pronounced many different ways, including “hussif,” “hussive,” and “hussy.” And for centuries the variations generally meant the same thing, the female head of a household.
For example, when when “hussy” first showed up in the early 1500s, it meant the “mistress of a household” or “a thrifty woman,” according to the OED. The first citation is from a 1530 entry in the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh:
“Na seruandis [shall] tak vther clathis than thar masteris and husseis and thar houshaldis clathis to wesche” (“No servants shall take other clothes to wash than the clothes of their masters and hussies and households”).
But in the mid-16th century, “housewife” (in various spellings and pronunciations) took on an additional, pejorative meaning: a “frivolous, impertinent, or disreputable” woman or girl, according to the OED.
Here’s a negative example from a 1546 collection of proverbs by John Heywood: “Ye huswife, what wind blowth ye hyther.”
And here’s one from a 1599 letter by Hugh Broughton: “Sampsons heyfer was his wife, a skittish huswife.”
“Hussy” first took on this pejorative sense in the 1600s, when it came to mean a disreputable woman.
The OED’s earliest negative example is from the writings of the English clergyman and theologian John Trapp (1647): “Such another hussy as this was dame Alice Pierce, a concubine to our Edward III.”
The development of positive and negative senses for “housewife” and its variations led to differences in how these words were pronounced and spelled.
When using the words in a pejorative sense, English speakers frequently pronounced the first syllable as HUSS, the OED says.
As a result, the dictionary suggests, speakers using the words positively began pronouncing the first syllable as HOWSE to differentiate between the positive and the negative meanings.
It took several hundred years, but when the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings sorted themselves out, English had two words: “housewife” (a female head of a household) and “hussy” (a brazen or promiscuous woman).
It wasn’t until the 19th century, the OED says, that the modern HOWSE pronunciation of “housewife” became the norm in pronouncing dictionaries and its derogatory meanings became extinct.
By that time, “housewife” and “hussy” had gone their separate ways. “Housewife” retained the purely domestic meanings while “hussy” had all the fun, keeping only its disreputable character.
Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.