1. a staff with a cleft end for holding wool, flax, etc., from which the thread is drawn in spinning by hand.
  2. a similar attachment on a spinning wheel.
  3. Archaic.
    1. a woman or women collectively.
    2. women’s work.


  1. Sometimes Offensive. noting, pertaining to, characteristic of, or suitable for a female.See also distaff side.


  1. the rod on which flax is wound preparatory to spinning
  2. (modifier) of or concerning womenoffensive to distaff members of the audience

Old English distæf “stick that holds flax for spinning,” from dis- “bunch of flax” (cf. Middle Low German dise, Low German diesse “a bunch of flax on a distaff;” see bedizen) + stæf “stick, staff” (see staff).

A synonym in English for “the female sex, female authority in the family,” since at least the late 1400s, probably because in the Middle Ages spinning was typically done by women. St. Distaff’s Day was Jan. 7, when “women resumed their spinning and other ordinary employments after the holidays” [OED].

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