On Spinning and Old Maids

Just as people have been weaving for thousands of years, so too they have been spinning; the two activities have gone hand in hand through the centuries. And in today’s English we have spin. It comes from Middle English spinnen, which meant “to draw out and twist fibres into thread”. We can find a reference to it in the South English Legendary from around 1300:


Mine hondene me beoth bi-nome þat I ne may sevwy ne spinne.

(My hands are paralysed, so that I may neither sew nor spin)


This Middle English form came from the Old English verb spinnan, of the same meaning. Interestingly, we can see where the forms of the modern English verb came from; the past tense was spann and the past participle was spunnen.


This can be traced to the Proto-Germanic form *spenwan, evidence for which can be found in several other modern languages, such as German spinnen, Swedish spinna, Norwegian spinne, Danish spinne and spinde, Dutch spinnen.


Taking it one step further back in time brings us to the Proto-Indo-European form *spen-wo, and the root form *(s)pen, meaning “draw out, stretch, spin”. The modern English word “span” is a cognate, and is related to the sense of “draw out, stretch”.


Our next step is to look at another cognate, which has a very different meaning in the modern language. This is, of course, “spinster”. This form arose in the mid 14th century, and at that time it simply meant “woman who spins thread”. It is formed by using the stem of spinnen, which was spin-, and adding “stere”, which was simply a feminine suffix. Early versions were sometimes written as “spynnstere” or “spinnestere”.


You may wonder how it came to have its modern meaning. This is entirely to do with cultural expectations of women. At that time, unmarried women were supposed to spin thread; that was seen as their main occupation. This caused a shift in meaning, as the word became less associated with the activity and more with the status of the women themselves.


One thought on “On Spinning and Old Maids

  1. This is really interesting! I love watching TV programmes that are set in the “old” days – like Ripper Street where the use of English is different. It makes me wonder how we got to where we are today. I love it all.

    Glad I am not a spinster, now or back then. Spinning thread doesnt sound too interesting does it? 🙂

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