The term “grass widow” has gone through a lot of changes in its 500-year history. At one time it even inspired a variant spelling, “grace widow,” which took on a life of its own. One thing hasn’t changed, though. Neither has ever meant an actual widow—that is, a woman whose husband is dead, a term we wrote about in 2010.Share
We’ll take a look first at “grass widow,” which now generally means a woman whose husband is temporarily away or a woman who’s divorced. The phrase made its debut in English writing in the 16th century, several hundred years before “grace widow” appeared on the scene. In the 1500s, a “grass widow” was not a respectable woman. The term meant “an unmarried woman who has cohabited with one or more men,” or “a discarded mistress,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. It also meant an unmarried mother, according to the dictionary’s citations.
The term was first recorded, the OED says, in a 1529 religious treatise by Thomas More, who wrote: “For then had wyuys [wives] ben in his [St. Paul’s] time lytel better than grasse wydowes be now.” These later OED citations show that “grass widows” were often single mothers: “The 31 day was buri’d Marie the daughtr of Elizabeth London graswidow.” (From town records of Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, 1582.)
“A Grass-Widow, one that pretends to have been Married, but never was, yet has Children.” (From a slang collection, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, 1699.) (Read more.)