Q From Maryalice Shaw in the USA: Where does the term grass widow come from, and why?
A The usual meaning given in British dictionaries is of a woman whose husband is temporarily away, say on business. This sense is known in other English-speaking communities such as Australia. It has long been used in the USA in the rather different sense of “a woman who is separated, divorced, or lives apart from her husband”, as the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary has it.
Some writers have suggested that it’s actually a corruption of grace-widow. But etymologists are quite sure the first word does refer to the plant, because the phrase has always been recorded with grass and not grace.
Another theory is that it’s slang from the British Raj for wives sent away during the hot summer to the cooler (and greener) hill stations while their husbands remained on duty in the plains. We can trace this theory back to the famous Anglo-Indian dictionary Hobson-Jobson of 1886. It says that the term is applied “with a shade of malignancy”, a tantalisingly opaque comment.
The phrase itself is much older than British India. It’s first used by Sir Thomas More in his Dialogue of 1528. But then it meant something rather different: either an abandoned mistress or an unmarried woman who had cohabited with several men. It might have expressed the idea that the abandoned lover had been “put out to grass”. But it could conceivably have come from the same type of origin as bastard; this is from the Latin bastum for a pack saddle, suggesting a child born after a brief encounter on an improvised bed, such as a packsaddle pillow, whose owner had gone by morning. Could the grass in grass widow refer to surreptitious love-making in the fields rather than indoors, or the straw in a barn used for an illicit tryst?
Our modern meaning first turns up in the 1840s. It seems possible that the term was applied derisively to Anglo-Indian wives sent away for the summer (were there perhaps well-known opportunities for hanky-panky in the hill stations?) and that it only gradually took on the modern sense through a reinterpretation of grass to mean the green landscape of the hills. That could explain the “shade of malignancy” comment in Hobson-Jobson, though it says tactfully about the older senses of the word that “no such opprobrious meanings attach to the Indian use”.