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 distaffs (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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Did You Know?


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 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, "Remembering Barbara Bush, a beloved first lady of strength and purpose," 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, "Should Women Make Their Own Pop Music Canon?," 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, "Movies Save the Day in the Cheerful Tearjerker Their Finest," 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, "Melting glaciers reveal lost mountain pass and artifacts used by Vikings," 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, "Percentage of Films Featuring Female Protagonists Increased in 2019: Study," 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, "Serengeti Empress was third.," 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, "RAISE HELL: THE LIFE & TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS," 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 1 Dec. 2020.

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More Definitions for distaff


How to pronounce distaff (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of distaff

formal : of, relating to, or being a woman

More from Merriam-Webster on distaff

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Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about distaff

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