There are a handful of words in the English language that distinguish by gender. Mother and father. Sister and brother. Hero and heroine. Waiter and waitress. King and Queen.
Mostly, they mean the same. Neutrally describing either a male or female in the same context. But every now and then, there’s something more complex going on.
How about the words Spinster and Bachelor, for example.
Both words, in simple terms, mean an unmarried person who is either female or male.
But in modern usage, one word is cruel and the other is not.
Words themselves aren’t naturally cruel; human beings make them so. The way we use a word or the connotations we add to it can be hurtful. And then it sticks.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, Spinster and Bachelor are defined as:
SPINSTER Noun. An unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage.
BACHELOR Noun. A man who is not and has never been married.
Even the official definition of the word Spinster contains societal expectations and judgements. There is a ‘usual’ age for a woman to marry. A Bachelor, however, is simply not married.
But it didn’t begin that way.
The word spinster originated in England and simply described girls and women who spun wool for a living. By the seventeenth century, spinster was recorded as the official legal description of an unmarried woman.
Perhaps as the unmarried woman became more common in society the level of scorn, pity and ridicule around the word, and state, intensified. In modern everyday English, the word is rarely used positively.
Spinster implies undesirability, repression and sadness.Most single women, however comfortable in their status, would take umbrage with the label. Society still expects us to marry, and this word is one of the many ways its demands are made clear.
Bachelor, by contrast, has connotations of a lively, free-spirited single man.Or a highly desirable marriage candidate, often called an ‘eligible bachelor’ and rated in magazines and internet polls.
Ever seen a Top 20 Eligible Spinsters list?
There are plenty of hottest women polls around, of course. But few celebrating the singleness or spinster-dom of their subjects.
Being an unmarried woman isn’t seen as a desirable state. But an unmarried woman is, technically, many things in this day and age. She might be a mother, but not married. She might be in a committed relationship, but not married. She might be happily single and independent. And not married.
But the word still contains such scorn. Only once we’ve shaken off our societal pressures can these words lose their power to bruise.
Some communities have ‘reclaimed’ words that have been used offensively in the past. I say it’s time we reclaimed spinster for women who are happy in the life they have, regardless of marital or relationship status.
Sexism often reveals itself plainly in the things that women are penalized for, yet which men are not.
And, in this case, it reveals itself in the simple comparison of two dictionary definitions.
But that’s the great thing about words. Sometimes we can change what they really mean and take their cruelty away.