Saturday, September 13, 2008

Grass Widow

I'm a grass widow for the next twelve days and I'm contemplating what mischief I shall get up to. You know while the cat's away the mouse will play.

The old scientist has jetted off to Australia and should be arriving momentarily. Sadly it is not a happy trip, since his sister who has Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia is not doing well and we fear she may not be around when we visit there next March.

Despite that fact, I think he was rather excited when he left. He was going home, for we expat Australians always think of Australia as home, no matter how long we have been gone, although he did leave a very long time ago, in 1957 in fact.

There's now a direct flight between Vancouver and Sydney but it is a pretty brutal fifteen hours and at the end of it he has to pick up a rental car and drive on the "wrong" side of the road, through the mad traffic of Sydney and north for four hours to reach his other sister's house. So he has instructions to telephone me as soon as he arrives. He said I'll send you an email but I said no way, you phone.

So where does the expression, grass widow come from, you might ask? Well I did anyway and naturally I had to google it and I just have to share what I found. By the way, the image above is Sisyrinchium inflatum or "Grass Widow", a charming North American native wildflower.

Definiton of a grass widow:

NOUN: 1. A woman who is divorced or separated from her husband. 2. A woman whose husband is temporarily absent. 3. An abandoned mistress. 4. The mother of a child born out of wedlock.

So already I've learned something new since I only knew of meaning 2. It seems the British and consequently the Australians use that meaning, while in North America meaning 1 is the one more commonly understood. Thus this explanation:

Grass probably refers to a bed of grass or hay as opposed to a real bed. This association would help explain the earliest recorded sense of the word (1528), "an unmarried woman who has lived with one or more men," as well as the related senses "an abandoned mistress" and "the mother of an illegitimate child." Later on, after the sense of grass had been obscured, people may have interpreted grass as equivalent to the figurative use of pasture, as in out to pasture. Hence grass widow could have developed the senses "a divorced or separated wife" or "a wife whose husband is temporarily absent."

Convinced? Perhaps not. It seems to have first been used by Sir Thomas More in a dialogue in 1528. From here:

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?

How about this rather interesting explanation?

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.......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.

Mmm. So there, you know as much about the origin of the expression as I do and probably more than you ever wanted to know.

Well I did receive a phone call just now and he did arrive safely, after first of all getting lost in Sydney while trying to get onto the Sydney Harbour bridge which he said he could see but not access. The streets seemed to "have changed" since he was there five years ago. Luckily it was Sunday and the traffic was not too bad but I think he needs a GPS system, don't you?

Now back to my plans. Well I am going for lunch on Monday with Liz who is currently on her way from the UK, and Leslie, a local blogger and then there's book club. Good heavens, I'll have to do better than that!


14 comments:

Dragonstar said...

JMB, I love words and their derivations, so thank you for this!

As to your grass widowhood, tomorrow's lunch will be fun, and I'm sure you can work out other things once you're used to the freedom ;) Just don't waste your time cleaning the house!!!

James Higham said...

You know while the cat's away the mouse will play.

Tell us the juicy bits - please, please!

Sean Jeating said...

Thanks for teaching me something new on a Sunday morning, jmb.
In German 'Strohwitwer' (straw-widower) refers to husbands whose wives would temporarily be absent.
There exists no equivalent for 'grass-widow', though, such as 'Strohwitwe'.

Anyway, carpe occasionem, Strohwitwe. :)

CherryPie said...

Thanks, that was interesting, I didn't know all those different definitions either.

Make sure you have loads of fun :-)

Carver said...

Hi JMB, That was so interesting to learn the origins of grass widow. I only knew the second meaning.

Your husband left Australia the year I was born so I know it was a long time ago. Glad he arrived safely and I hope he has some meaningful time with his sister.

I know you'll have a fun lunch with Liz and Leslie. I'm sure you'll find some engaging pursuits after your book club. There's always sitting outside in beautiful Vancouver with your stack of "to read" books. That would occupy me a long time.

Janice Thomson said...

Ohhh what fun; no fancy meals, no housecleaning, come and go as you please - well who could ask for more? :)

Political Umpire said...

Fascinating. Slightly embarrassing to admit it, but I hardly knew of the term at all ...

jams o donnell said...

Thanks for this jmb. I've certainly learned something new.

On another note I hope your sister in law makes a recovery from her illness

Dr.John said...

Thqanks for clearing all that up.
I pray your husband gets some quality time with his sister.
Good the read that he called you.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Very interesting linguistically, jmb.
Glad Alan arrived Ok although, of course, it is not a happy trip for him.
Love to you, Alan and his sister from Simi and me xxx

Blogpower said...

Thanks Dragonstar, I shall certainly avoid housecleaning, except maybe the day before he comes back.

Not on your life, James.

Well Sean, straw is but dried grass, you could say. I shall indeed seize the day, for something or other.

I thought the "research" was quite interesting too Cherie. I always have loads of fun.

The others were new to me too Carver. Actually it is quite sobering how long we have been gone from Australia.

I intend to make the most of it Janice. Actually I don't do a lot of fancy cooking any more anyway.

It must be an old fashioned term then PU, I'm surprised you don't know it.

I'm sure you knew the term though Jams, just not its source. Thanks but it is just a matter of time for my SIL. It's not really curable.

Thanks Dr John, not a pleasant reason for such a journey.

Thanks too Welshcakes. Despite the sad reason for going I am sure he will be happy to see his other siblings.

Thanks to everyone for visiting and commenting.

Crushed said...

I always thought it was a woman who's husband wasn't dead, but for all practical purposes might as well be (in the days this mattered), such as away at war or just done a runner.

jmb said...

Well Crushed, I thought it was used for women who had basically been abandoned too, intentionally or otherwise. I thought the story about the women in India interesting.

Nunyaa said...

Am pleased the other half arrived safely Down Under. I like reading about the origins of sayings, this one is interesting :)