Monday, March 21, 2005

The distaff -- as promised

Here is the promised posting** on the origin of the word ‘distaff’ – as in ‘The distaff side of Chabad’.
According to my cd-rom of the great, 20-vol Oxford English Dictionary (one of the truly great, enjoyable, fascinating works of scholarship of all time, and one of the best cd-roms available – remember next time you have a birthday) …. Distaff, meaning the female lineage of the family -- has the following derivation:

------ spinning was originally done with a distaff and spindle – the distaff being the long rod (about a meter long) on which the raw wool or flax was wound, drawn through a cleft in the top of the rod, and then twisted and wound on the spindle
------ thence ‘distaff’ became synonymous with womens’ work (often contrasted to the ‘spear’ – man’s work)
------- thence “symbolically, for the female sex, female authority or dominion; also, the female side of a family, the ‘spindle-side as opposed to the ‘spear-side’ …..
------- thence – ‘distaff side’ – the female branch of a house or family. Sample citation: 1895: Pollock and Maitland, History of English Law II 305: For a male to get a share by ‘distaff right’ [iure coli] was by no means uncommon.

The original entry is nearly two pages long. A feast!

Barry Gourary z’l, as a descendant on his mother’s side of the Schneersohn’s, was thus a distaff heir.

** see note at end of this posting.

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