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Raffaello Sorbi, The Spinner (1872), from a private collection. The painting depicts a woman holding up a distaff (sense 1) in her left hand and a spindle in her right.
Parts of a spinning wheel - L: distaff

From Middle English distaf (distaff), from Old English distæf (distaff),[1] from *dis- (bunch of flax) (cognate with Middle Low German dise (bunch of flax on a distaff)) + stæf (staff) (from Proto-Germanic *stabaz (staff, stick), from Proto-Indo-European *stebʰ-). Senses 3 and 5 (“anything traditionally done by or considered of importance to women only”; “a woman, or women considered as a group”) refer to the fact that spinning was traditionally done by women.[2]



distaff (plural distaffs or distaves)

  1. A device to which a bundle of natural fibres (often wool, flax, or cotton) are attached for temporary storage, before being drawn off gradually to spin thread. A traditional distaff is a staff with flax fibres tied loosely to it (as indicated by the etymology of the word), but modern distaffs are often made of cords weighted with beads, and attached to the wrist.
  2. The part of a spinning wheel from which fibre is drawn to be spun.
  3. Anything traditionally done by or considered of importance to women only.
  4. A race for female horses only.
  5. A woman, or women considered as a group.
    • 1643, James Howell, “England’s Tears for the Present Wars, which, for the Nature of the Quarrel, the Quality of Strength, the Diversity of Battles, Skirmishes, Encounters, and Sieges, Happened in so Short a Compass of Time, Cannot be Paralleled by any Precedent Age”, in Walter Scott, editor, A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts, on the Most Interesting and Entertaining Subjects: But Chiefly Such as Relate to the History and Constitution of These Kingdoms. Selected from an Infinite Number in Print and Manuscript, in the Royal, Cotton, Sion, and Other Public, as well as Private, Libraries; Particularly that of the Late Lord Somers, volume V, 2nd edition, London: Printed for T[homas] Cadell and W. Davies, Strand [et al.], published 1811, OCLC 912953531, page 42:
      But O, passenger, if thou art desirous to know the cause of these fatal discomposures, of this inextricable war, truly I must deal plainly: I cannot resolve thee herein to any full satisfaction. Grievances there were, I must confess, and some incongruities in my civil government, (wherein, some say, the crozier, some say, the distaff was too busy,) but I little thought, God knows, that those grievances required a redress this way.
    • 1681, John Dryden, The Spanish Fryar: Or, The Double Discovery. Acted at the Duke’s Theatre, London: Printed for Richard Tonson and Jacob Tonson, at Grays-inn-gate, in Grays-inn-lane, and at the Judge's-Head, in Chancery-lane, OCLC 6484883, Act IV, [scene ii], page 53:
      [C]an I ſooth Tyranny? / Seem pleas'd to ſee my Royal Maſter murther'd, / His crown uſurp'd, a Diſtaff in the Throne [Anne, Queen of Great Britain], / A Council made up of ſuch as dare not ſpeak, / And could not if they durſt; []
    • 1963, John Kennedy Toole, chapter 5, in A Confederacy of Dunces, Baton Rouge, La.; London: Louisiana State University Press, published 1980, →ISBN; republished New York, N.Y.: Grove Press, 2002, →ISBN, pages 109–110:
      "[…] Where is our little distaff member this morning?" / "I had to send her home. She came to work this morning in her nightgown." / Ignatius frowned and said, "I do not understand why she was sent away. After all, we are quite informal here. We are one big family. I only hope that you have not damaged her morale."

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distaff (not comparable)

  1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of women.
  2. Of the maternal side of a family.



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  1. ^ distaf, n.” in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007, retrieved 25 December 2017.
  2. ^ distaff” in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press.

Further reading[edit]

Middle English[edit]



  1. Alternative form of distaf