It’s official. From 21 December 2005, the word spinster will no longer be part of the British government’s vocabulary.
It’s because of the Civil Partnership Act, which comes into force then and will permit a form of civil ceremony (which is carefully not being called marriage but a civil partnership) for gays and lesbians. The Registrar General’s office felt it desirable to come up with fresh descriptions to fit the new situation, since to call the contracting parties spinsters and bachelors is inappropriate. The replacement will be the boringly accurate single, to describe the status of both men and women who haven’t before been through either ceremony.
Somehow, I can’t feel the word is much of a loss. It must have been a very long time since an unmarried woman referred to herself by this title in seriousness. In our modern language it has too many adverse connotations: a woman left on the shelf, an old maid, with nothing left but to become a benign busybody, keen on gardening and cats, bustling round the parish doing good works and cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist (image courtesy of George Orwell via John Major) or, like Miss Marple, solving the problems of the world with hard-headed sympathy and acute observation. But there’s nothing new about these implications — they’ve been linked with the word since the seventeenth century through the suspicion and hostility with which unmarried women above a certain age were regarded, at risk of being arrested as prostitutes or condemned as witches.
What we have lost is any clear connection with the word’s roots. That ending -ster is what grammarians call an agentive suffix, one that turns a verb for some activity into the name of a person who does it. Originally, it was always applied to a woman (though that changed later), as in brewster (a woman who brews ale, a female job in a medieval household), maltster (a woman who makes the malt from which ale was brewed), and spinster (a woman who spins). The word appeared in the written language in 1362, in William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman. So many women were described in marriage records as having the occupation of spinster that by the sixteenth century it began automatically to be used for all unmarried women and became the legal description, as Thomas Blount wrote in his Dictionary in 1656, “for all unmarried women, from the Viscounts Daughter downward”.