Being single after a certain age has historically been tough. For women especially, it’s often been a mark of shame to not be married by a certain age. If a single woman over the age of 30 appeared in a Victorian novel, it was assumed something terrible had happened in her life. While many of these dated opinions have faded, their legacy exists in the way we talk about single people. Even if it’s used only in jest, the language of being single tends to be reductive and sexist. We looked at some of these terms from around the world to see how singles have been viewed historically.
The Language Of Being Single
Alte Jungfer — literally “old maid,” this German term carries a slightly less negative connotation than its English equivalent. Still, it can be offensive and can imply that a woman was not good enough to find a partner. The male equivalent is junggeselle, though that’s treated more like bachelor.
Bachelor — this word comes from the Old French bacheler all the way back in the 18th century, and refers to an unmarried man. Unlike many of the other terms on the list — especially spinster, which bachelor is usually paired with — this term is often more of a neutral judgment on the person it’s describing. There is also “old bachelor” or “confirmed bachelor,” though those are generally ways of alluding to a man being gay (but perhaps closeted). Plus, there’s “bachelorette” for women, which came into use by 1896, but today is used primarily for bachelorette parties and The Bachelorette.
Catherinette — in the version of Christianity observed by the French starting in the Middle Ages, women were looked after by Saint Catherine (patron saint of lawyers, librarians, philosophers, and a million other things). If a woman were still unmarried by the time she was 25 years old, she would participate in St. Catherine’s Day (November 25). On that day, she would don an elaborately constructed hat and go to a dance in search of a man. These behatted women were the Catherinettes, and eventually that name became a more general term for any unmarried women over the age of 25.
He Never Married — this one is not an epithet; it’s a euphemism that reveals another side to “being single.” “He never married” was a common euphemism used in obituaries to describe men who were gay when it was not socially acceptable to be out. To put it a bit more fancifully, it’s like this tweet:
love reading about men in history like “unfortunately, he never found a wife 🙁 his elaborate scarf collection sold for $1.2M in 2011. he and his closest male friend, Chauncey, with whom he shared a bed, died within weeks of one another. they were known for their dinner parties.”
— ᴄᴀʟᴇʙ ʜᴇᴀʀᴏɴ (@calebsaysthings) December 30, 2019
Old Maid — this term is mostly self-explanatory. It’s a derogatory name for a woman who is old and not married (thus a maid and not a matron). The word has a long history, with the earliest uses appearing in 1530.
Parasaito Shinguru (パラサイトシングル) — this Japanese term, coined by the sociologist Masahiro Yamada in 1999, means “parasite single.” It technically can describe any person in their 20s or 30s who still lives with their parents, but is applied to unmarried women in particular. The word was made to describe a phenomenon in which younger people were living with their parents for longer, perhaps to “take advantage” of their parents’ money. It’s very often seen as an insult, and like many terms on this list it glosses over the several other societal factors that go into a person’s ability to move about in the world.
Self-Partnered — in November 2019, Emma Watson mentioned in a Vogue interview that she was happy being single, and referred to it as being “self-partnered.” While this is unlikely to catch on as a common phrase, it’s a nice alternative to much of the language of being single. Even the word “single” itself tends to imply that someone is in want of a partner, whereas self-partnered expresses a satisfaction with being on your own.
Sheng Nu (剩女) — this Chinese term regrettably translates to “leftover women,” so you can probably guess it’s not too complimentary. It was made popular in 2007 by the Chinese government’s All-China Women’s Federation, which represents the women of the country. After widespread complaint, the term was struck from official documentation. But it’s stuck around as a way for people to accuse women (generally over the age of 27) of being vain or selfish for not being married yet.
Solterón/Solterona — these Spanish terms are the equivalent of “spinster,” though there is a more equitable male version in this case. If someone thinks you need to find a partner, they might say to you te vas a quedar solterona (“you’re going to remain a spinster”).
Sōshoku-kei danshi (草食系男子) — this Japanese term roughly translates to “herbivore men,” and it’s the only term on this list that’s not particularly kind to men. It’s meant to describe men who are uninterested in finding a girlfriend, and thus have lost some of their masculinity. The term was coined by Maki Fukasawa in 2006 to pinpoint a possible source of the very real phenomenon of declining birth rates in Japan. But there are a number of causes for the birth rate drop, and “herbivore men” overly simplifies things by putting all of the blame on particular men for larger societal problems.
Spinster — starting in the 14th century, women who spun wool were called “spinsters.” It makes sense, because it’s just “a person who spins.” The work was basically always done by unmarried women, and so over time it took on a more general meaning to describe women who were not married. Its evolution didn’t stop there, though, and it only became more derogatory. It doesn’t just mean “an unmarried woman,” it means a woman who can’t be married because something is wrong with her in a fundamental way.
Thornback — a thornback is kind of like a spinster who graduated (turned 30). It’s a less common term as far as the language of being single goes, and it was first used in a translation of François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Today, it usually refers to a particular kind of fish that has spines on its back.
Vieille Fille — this French term is basically an exact translation of “Old Maid,” and it means essentially the same thing (as well as being similarly offensive). The term is also the title of a novel by Honoré de Balzac, which is about an old, unmarried woman going about her life in Alençon, France.