Q: Lately, I’ve noticed the use of “grace widow” for a woman living in grace after being abandoned by her husband. Thinking it may be related to “grass widow,” I checked some non-scholarly sources online. Now I’m more confused than ever. Can you lexical experts clear things up?
A: The term “grass widow” has gone through a lot of changes in its 500-year history. At one time it even inspired a variant spelling, “grace widow,” which took on a life of its own.
One thing hasn’t changed, though. Neither has ever meant an actual widow—that is, a woman whose husband is dead, a term we wrote about in 2010.
We’ll take a look first at “grass widow,” which now generally means a woman whose husband is temporarily away or a woman who’s divorced.
The phrase made its debut in English writing in the 16th century, several hundred years before “grace widow” appeared on the scene.
In the 1500s, a “grass widow” was not a respectable woman. The term meant “an unmarried woman who has cohabited with one or more men,” or “a discarded mistress,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. It also meant an unmarried mother, according to the dictionary’s citations.
The term was first recorded, the OED says, in a 1529 religious treatise by Thomas More, who wrote: “For then had wyuys [wives] ben in his [St. Paul’s] time lytel better than grasse wydowes be now.”
These later OED citations show that “grass widows” were often single mothers:
“The 31 day was buri’d Marie the daughtr of Elizabeth London graswidow.” (From town records of Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, 1582.)
“A Grass-Widow, one that pretends to have been Married, but never was, yet has Children.” (From a slang collection, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, 1699.)
But what was the significance of “grass” in the phrase? It had nothing to do with “widow’s weeds”—that is mourning clothes. And in its original sense “grass widow” had no connection with notions of being “turned out to grass.”
In fact, the entire term “grass widow” may have come down to us from Germanic languages. The OED notes comparable words with the same meaning in Middle Low German (graswedewe), Dutch (grasweduwe), Swedish (gräsenka), and Danish (græsenke), as well as the German strohwittwe, literally “straw-widow.” (Interestingly, there’s an equivalent term in French, veuve de paille, “straw widow.”)
“The etymological notion is obscure,” the OED says. “It has been suggested,” the dictionary adds, that words for grass and straw “may have been used with opposition to bed.” So a “grass widow” might provide a roll in the hay, so to speak—an illicit sexual tryst, not necessarily in a bed.
In a usage note, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this explanation: “The grass in grass widow seems to have originally made reference to the makeshift bed of grass or hay (as opposed to a real bed with a mattress and sheets) on which a woman might lie with her lover before he rises and abandons her—leaving her a widow, so to speak, in the grass.”
As we wrote on the blog in 2015, grass and the color green have had sexual connotations since the Middle Ages. For example, the OED describes “green gown” as an archaic and historical term for “a dress stained green from rolling in grass.”
“Grass widow” was still used in the sense of an illicit sexual partner well into the 1800s. On May 23, 1856, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Maria Fitzherbert, mistress of King George IV, as a “grass widow.” And A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases, published that same year, defined “grass widow” as “a female of easy virtue, a prostitute.”
However, “grass widow” was gaining more respectable meanings in the mid-19th century. Most notably, it came to mean a married woman whose husband is away, as when his work takes him elsewhere.
This sense of “a married woman whose husband is absent from her,” the OED says, may have arisen after the original, pejorative meaning “had ceased to be generally understood.”
The more respectable usage, Oxford suggests, may have been influenced by the 16th-century expression “turned out to grass,” in the figurative sense of being on vacation or freed from one’s duties.
This newer sense of “grass widow” was first recorded in a short story by Johnson J. Hooper, an American humorist: “John Green’s sister, (the grass widder, as lives with ’em), she goes to her battling bench.” (From “Taking the Census in Alabama,” originally published in 1843 in the magazine Spirit of the Times.)
The term was also used in Australian, Anglo-Indian, and British English, as in these OED citations:
“The absence of so many of ‘the lords of creation’ in pursuit of what they value … more than all the women in the world—nuggets. The wives thus left in town to deplore their husbands’ infatuation, are termed ‘grass-widows’—a mining expression.” (From A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia, by Ellen Clacy, 1853.)
“Grass widows in the hills are always writing to their husbands, when you drop in upon them.” (From John Lang’s book Wanderings in India, 1859.)
“The pretty grass-widow … is going because every one else is gone.” (From the Englishman’s Magazine, August 1865.)
“Expectant husbands come out to meet the ‘grass widows’ who have travelled with us.” (From an 1884 journal entry by Lady Dufferin, Vicereine of India, published in Our Viceregal Life in India, 1889.)
In the United States, “grass widow” also came to mean a woman whose husband has deserted her. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle used this sense of the phrase in a news item on May 7, 1857: “His sister was a ‘grass widow,’ her husband having left her years ago.”
What does “grass widow” mean today? Dictionaries differ somewhat, though most include a meaning not cited in the OED: a divorced woman.
American Heritage has the broadest number of definitions: “1. A woman who is divorced or separated from her husband. 2. A woman whose husband is temporarily absent. 3. An abandoned mistress. 4. The mother of a child born out of wedlock.”
However, both Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster Unabridged say that only the first two uses are standard today. (M-W labels #3 and #4 as dialectal, and the OED says they’re perhaps obsolete.)
Yet another source, the Cambridge Dictionary online, has only the #2 meaning, which it phrases this way: “a woman who spends a lot of time apart from her partner, often because he or she is working in a different place.”
Now, on to “grace widow,” a comparatively rare term. As is often the case, you’ll find a lot of nonsense about it on the Internet.
For example, it’s sometimes suggested that “grace widow” was the original phrase, later corrupted to “grass widow.” This isn’t true.
The OED has no entry for “grace widow” (and neither do standard dictionaries), but in its entry for “grass widow,” Oxford rejects “the notion that the word is a ‘corruption’ of grace-widow.”
In fact “grace widow” did not occur in English, according to our researches, until the early 19th century (300 years after “grass widow”), when “grace widow” was used to mean an unmarried mother.
The earliest example we’ve found is from Edward Moor’s book Suffolk Words and Phrases: An Attempt to Collect the Lingual Localisms of That County (1823):
“GRACE WIDOW. A woman who had ‘a child for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.’ It ought rather to be grace-less.”
We found another example in a short story, published a few years later in Boston, about an elderly unmarried mother: “Hannah was a spinster—or, as the country people denominate a single woman, who has to support a family—a grace widow.” (From “Old Hannah,” by Susanna Strickland, published in the Atheneum, March 1829.)
In these contexts, “grass widow,” the long-established phrase for an unmarried mother, would have been the expected usage. So why was “grace” substituted for “grass”?
We don’t know. Perhaps “grace” made more sense to people than “grass”—that is, an unmarried mother was given the title “widow” by “grace,” or courtesy. Or perhaps people thought “grass” was a mispronunciation of “grace.”
For whatever reason, it seems clear that “grace widow” originally cropped up as a variant spelling of “grass widow.”
However, within 30 years claims were made that (1) “grace” was the original term, and (2) a “grace widow” was not a mistress or unmarried mother, but rather a married woman deserted by her husband.
Both assertions appeared in this letter to the editor in the March 1859 issue of the Ladies Repository, a Methodist magazine published in Cincinnati:
“GRASS-WIDOW.—The epithet is probably a corruption of the French word grace—pronounced gras. The expression is thus equivalent to femme veuve de grace, foemina vidua ex gratia, a widow, not in fact, but—called so—by grace or favor. Hence grass-widow would mean a grace widow: one who is made so, not by the death of her husband, but by the kindness of her neighbors, who are pleased to regard the desertion of her husband as equivalent to his death.”
The only truth in that statement is that vidua ex gratia could be translated “widow by favor” and the French veuve de grâce as “widow by grace.” But there’s no evidence that those Latin or French phrases were ever in use.
No French dictionary we’ve seen—historical, etymological, or modern—has an entry for, or even a mention of, veuve de grâce. And no Latin dictionary has vidua ex gratia. They don’t appear in official documents in any of the historical databases we’ve searched.
The story was further embroidered in the 1870s, when another element was added: the claim that the “grace” came not from kind neighbors but from a higher authority. Supposedly a “grace widow” was a divorced or abandoned wife who was given a dispensation to call herself a widow by the “grace” of the pope or the Roman Catholic Church.
The first to suggest this, as far as we can tell, was apparently David Turpie, an Indianapolis judge and later US senator from Indiana, who made the claim in a speech delivered to a literary society in 1875.
We found this paragraph in the May 5, 1875, issue of an Indianapolis newspaper, the Evening News, under the headline “Grass Widow”:
“Judge Turpie has been reading a paper to the ‘Fiat Lux’ Society on the origin of the phrase, ‘grass widow,’ or rather ‘grace widow,’ for the first has no foundation in fact, and is simply a barbarism, or fungus which has attached itself to the English language. ‘Grace widow’ is the term for one who becomes a widow by grace or favor, not of necessity, as by death, and originated in the early ages of European civilization, when divorces were granted but seldom, and wholly by authority of the Catholic church. When such decree was granted to a woman the Papal receipt stated ‘Viduca de gratia,’ which interpreted is ‘widow of grace.’ In the law of France it would read ‘Veuve de grace,’ which in English gives ‘widow of grace,’ or ‘grace widow,’ ‘veuve’ being translated as ‘widow.’ ”
The judge apparently mangled the Latin vidua ex gratia as “Viduca de gratia.” As we’ve said, we couldn’t find vidua ex gratia in any Latin dictionaries or church documents. Nor, of course, could we find the gibberish “Viduca de gratia.”
In fact, nowhere in any official documents—religious or secular, English or American—have we found a single instance of the phrase “grace widow.” Nor have we found any instance of a woman’s being declared a widow by reason of divorce or desertion.
Certainly marriages could be annulled or dissolved, but even in those cases, as far as we can tell, no woman was ever subsequently proclaimed a widow by any court or ecclesiastical authority.
Nevertheless, Judge Turpie’s assertions live on. News agencies must have distributed that brief news item as short “filler,” since the same paragraph, credited to the Indianapolis News and with only minor changes, later ran in newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States (including the New York Times).
In the 1890s the same paragraph, or part of it, was also reproduced in the British journal Notes and Queries as well as in E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (it was dropped in the 1959 edition).
In 1889 the term “grace widow” even appeared in A Dictionary of Law, by William Caldwell Anderson: “Grace widow. A widow by grace, by decree of a court; a wife living apart from her husband; a grass widow.”
But in 1895 an article in Law Book News excoriated Anderson’s work and specifically mentioned “grace widow,” calling Anderson’s derivation “philologically impossible” and “pronounced by the best authorities to be ‘certainly wrong.’ ”
The Law Book News writer probably quoted The Century Dictionary of 1889, which had this in its “grass-widow” entry: “The explanation reflected in the dial. form grace-widow, as if a widow by grace or courtesy, is certainly wrong.”
Nevertheless, once that mythological “grace widow” etymology was in circulation, it continued to crop up in early 20th-century publications.
And although Brewer’s Dictionary later dropped “grace widow” and other authors attempted to set the record the straight, the myth survives on the Internet.
In his book Devious Derivations (2002), the editor and word sleuth Hugh Rawson calls “grace widow” a “false refinement.” As he writes, “The grass widow, divorced or otherwise separated from her husband, is not termed a widow by French grâce, as if this were a courtesy title.”