dis·​taff | \ ˈdi-ˌstaf How to pronounce distaff (audio) \

Definition of distaff

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : female sense 1a(1) distaff executives
2 : maternal sense 2 the distaff side of the family — compare spear


plural distaffs\ ˈdi-​ˌstafs How to pronounce distaff (audio) , -​ˌstavz \

Definition of distaff (Entry 2 of 2)

1a : a staff for holding the flax, tow, or wool in spinning
b : woman's work or domain
2 : the female branch or side of a family

Illustration of distaff

Illustration of distaff


distaff 1a D, and spindle S

In the meaning defined above

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A distaff was originally a short staff that held a bundle of fibers - of flax or wool, for example - ready to be spun into yarn or thread. Since spinning was a basic daily task customarily done by women, the distaff came to be the symbol for the work or domain of women. This symbolic use of the noun distaff dates back to the time of Chaucer and is found in several works by Shakespeare. Eventually distaff came to be used for the female branch of a family and then as an adjective, as in the distaff side of the family.

Examples of distaff in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective An Elm Drive victory would give trainer Phil D’Amato a very successful weekend on the distaff side of the ledger. Bill Center, San Diego Union-Tribune, 4 Sep. 2021 The personal rivalries on the distaff side became apparent during the transition: When the Bushes won, Nancy did not invite Barbara to tour the living quarters until January 11 — much later than was traditional. NBC News, 21 Apr. 2018 Even if a separate, distaff canon is built, the atmosphere against which it’s being constructed is, gradually, becoming more integrated. Wesley Morris, New York Times, 5 Oct. 2017 And behind the camera, Scherfig has created something of a distaff utopia: both the book and the screenplay were written by women. Richard Lawson, VanityFair.com, 6 Apr. 2017 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun Other objects discarded along the way include a knife and its wooden handle; a birchbark container; a wooden needle; tinderbox; a wooden whisk; and a distaff, a tool that was used to hold wool as it was spun by hand. Ashley Strickland, CNN, 15 Apr. 2020 Twenty-four percent of distaff protagonists starred in dramas, while 21 percent were in comedies, 16 percent were in action features, 8 percent starred in science-fiction films and 5 percent led animated features. Katherine Schaffstall, The Hollywood Reporter, 8 Jan. 2020 With the victory, Uni might have wrested the distaff turf championship from Sistercharlie, who earlier ran third in the Filly & Mare Turf. BostonGlobe.com, 1 Aug. 2019 Ivins was something like a cross between Kristofferson and Joplin: part good old boy (distaff division); part full-throated, tangle-haired star. BostonGlobe.com, 12 Sep. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'distaff.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of distaff


circa 1633, in the meaning defined at sense 2


before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for distaff


Middle English distaf, from Old English distæf, from dis- (akin to Middle Low German dise bunch of flax) + stæf staff

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The first known use of distaff was before the 12th century

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Cite this Entry

“Distaff.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/distaff. Accessed 30 Nov. 2021.

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More Definitions for distaff



English Language Learners Definition of distaff

: of, relating to, or being a woman : female

More from Merriam-Webster on distaff

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for distaff

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about distaff


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