This post was inspired by the people who were complaining two days ago about people complaining about the day it was two days ago. (As far as I could tell, there were more people complaining about people complaining, than people complaining—if that makes sense.)
The English language has traditionally been ungenerous to the unmarried. Consider the following OED definitions for the word ‘bachelor’…
- a. A young knight, not old enough, or having too few vassals, to display his own banner, and who therefore followed the banner of another; a novice in arms. b. Hence, Knight Bachelor, a knight of the lowest but most ancient order; the full title of a gentleman who has been knighted (without belonging to any one of the specially named ‘orders’).
- A junior or inferior member, or ‘yeoman,’ of a trade-guild, or City Company
- a. One who has taken the first or lowest degree at a university, who is not yet a master of the Arts. (In this use, a woman may now be Bachelor of Arts, etc.)
- a. An unmarried man (of marriageable age).
And these for the word ‘spinster’…
- a. A woman (or, rarely, a man) who spins, esp. one who practises spinning as a regular occupation.
- a. Appended to names of women, originally in order to denote their occupation, but subsequently (from the 17th century) as the proper legal designation of one still unmarried. b. A woman still unmarried; esp. one beyond the usual age for marriage, an old maid.
To insist that single people share a word with people who practise spinning as a regular occupation, or with young and minimally vasselled knights, isn’t, strictly speaking, rude—but it might seem almost as if etymology didn’t really care that much, and just doled out words haphazardly, using up a couple of its misshapen bits. Of course, the term ‘old maid’ – ‘freq. derogatory’ according the OED – is rather worse.
Here are Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse discussing the subject:
‘But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!’
‘That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet…’
And here are Emma Watson (not the actress) and her sister Elizabeth:
‘I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.’
‘I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school—’
‘Singleness’, though, is rather better. Look at the idea from one angle, and it just looks like ‘not coupleness’, or like independence, like being a soloist. But rotate it slightly, and it becomes singleness of purpose and commitment, to a cause, for example; undividedness. Rotate it again, and it becomes uniqueness. It becomes, in fact, a number of things which are equally true of, or desirable for, married people—but single people at least get to appropriate the word.
Here, if I could work out how to make it do it, this post would glide elegantly into the following observation of the character Rosencrantz in Hamlet:
The single and peculiar life is bound,
With all the strength and armour of the mind,
To keep itself from noyance; but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depend and rest
The lives of many.
Here ‘single and peculiar’ apparently means ‘Of separate or distinct constitution or existence; independent, individual’, or in other words ‘not the king but just a random person’. But ‘the single and peculiar life’ is, I think, a nice phrase, especially if one wilfully misinterprets it mean ‘the single and unconventional life’, ‘the single and unusual life’, ‘the single and adventurous life’, or, indeed, ‘the singular life’, which sounds pleasantly Holmesian.
Unfortunately I also can’t work out a conclusion for this post apart from the one at the end of this sentence.