Sod Widows, Grass Widows, and Widos



29 January 2014

Census takers, law clerks, and other scribes occasionally delight us and confuse us with their euphemisms. The first pair of labels, from the 1800s and early 1900s, refer to two classes of women who managed their own lives. Sod widows were those who had actually buried their husbands (i.e., the men were under the sod). Grass widows were usually divorcees or abandoned or runaway wives who presented themselves as widows to be "socially acceptable."

The origin of the second term, which traces back to medieval Europe, is more colorful. Lexicographer John Ciardi explains it this way: "The reference is [historically] to country maids who so-to-speak married on the grass (in the hay) and who became so-to-speak widowed when their so-to-speak husband so-to-speak withdrew."1

Widos, on the other hand, were rascals of a male sort that was likely to be those so-to-speak husbands of the so-to-speak grass widows. Eric Partridge defines "widow" as a villain, a petty criminal, or a rogue.2


       1. Ciardi's A Browser's Dictionary: A Compendium of Curious Expressions & Intriguing Facts (New York: Harper & Row, 1980) deserves a spot on every historical researcher's shelf of go-to books.

       2. The same can be said of Partridge’s The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, eds., 2 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2005).

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