Monday, April 30, 2012

Widows in Grass, Alas


Grass Widow is a post-punk trio based in San Francisco.  Post-punk is a musically complex form of rock, full of layered melodies, allusion, and metaphor, developed in the late 1970s from punk rock, which was noted for its lean instrumentation and anti-establishment sentiments.  Okay, but what is a Grass Widow?

The three women who form the band chose for their name a term that has a scattered history and more than one meaning.  It variously refers to a divorcee or woman separated from her husband, a woman whose husband is temporarily absent, an abandoned mistress, or an unwed mother. 

The estimable Michael Quinion of worldwidewords.org provides several possible etymologies, without committing himself.  It is possibly a corruption of grace-widow (French veuve de grace or Latin viduca de gratia), which referred in the medieval church to a woman divorced from her husband by a dispensation of the Pope.  Others, however, dispute this origin and say it is slang from the British Raj for wives who left the hot plains during the summer to estivate (and perhaps engage in hanky-panky) in cooler and “grassier” hill stations. 

But the phrase can be found much earlier—in Sir Thomas More’s 1528 Dialogue, in which it meant either an abandoned mistress or a woman who had cohabited with several men, perhaps expressing the notion that successive lovers had been “put out to grass.”  More writes:  “Tyndall wolde by thys waye make saynt Poule to say thus. Take & chese in but such a wydow as hath had but one husbande at onys...I thynke saynt Powle ment not so. For then had wyuys ben in his time lytel better than grasse wydowes be now. For they be yet as seuerall as a barbours chayre & neuer take but one at onys."

Another theory has it that the term came from the Latin bastum, meaning a pack saddle, and suggesting a child born after a brief encounter on an improvised bed, such as a packsaddle pillow.  Or maybe it’s just a reference to casual coition in the grassy fields

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the term to the 1520s and says it meant "discarded mistress," analogous to the German Strohwitwe, or "straw-widow," probably an allusion to casual bedding. The meaning of a "married woman whose husband is absent" is from 1846.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou enjoys the company of widows of all kinds, finding them willing to overlook his peccadilloes, since they have no paragons at home to whom they can compare him.

            O, once there was a grass widow,
            Who never could pay what she did owe.
                        Her husband, alas,
                        Was a snake in the grass,
            And left her in debt with a kiddo.


1 comment:

  1. "Estivate" is SUCH a great word.

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