‘grass widow’: meanings and origin

The expression grass widow designates a married woman living apart from her husband, either temporarily or permanently—especially a woman whose husband is away often or for a prolonged period.
—Cf. also the expression grass widower, designating a married man living apart from his wife, and the expression golf widow, designating a woman whose husband spends much of his spare time playing golf.

However, the expression grass widow, first recorded in 1529, originally designated an unmarried woman who has borne an illegitimate child. The following definition, for example, is from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew. In its several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggers, Thieves, Cheats, &c. With an Addition of some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all sorts of People, (especially Foreigners) to secure their Money and preserve their Lives; besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New (London: Printed for W. Hawes […], P. Gilbourne […], and W. Davies […] – [1699]), by “B. E. Gent.”:

A Grass-Widow, one that pretends to have been Married, but never was, yet has Children.

The expression grass widow later came to designate a rejected concubine. The following definition, for example, is from A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: S. Hooper, 1785), by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-1791):

A grass widow, a discarded mistress.

It seems that the expression grass widow originally alluded to a bed of grass, hay, or the like, as a typical place for illicit sexual intercourse. The following definition, for example, is from The vocabulary of East Anglia; an attempt to record the vulgar tongue of the twin sister counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, as it existed in the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, and still exists; with proof of its antiquity from etymology and authority (London: J. B. Nichols and Son, 1830), by the English philologist Robert Forby (1759-1825):

GRASS-WIDOW, s. a forsaken fair one, whose nuptials, not celebrated in a church, were consummated, in all pastoral simplicity, on the green turf.

There exist in Germanic languages similar expressions. For example, Swedish gräsänka, literally grass widow, and German Strohwitwe, literally straw widow, both occur as follows in Svenskt och Tyskt-Franskt-Engelskt Hand-Lexicon (Örebro: Nils Magnus Lindh, 1814), a Swedish-German-French-English lexicon by Sven Niclas Wahrman:

Grásenka, s. Strohwittwe. Femme dont le mari est absent pour quelque tems 1. Grass-widow.

1 French femme dont le mari est absent pour quelque tems translates as woman whose husband is absent for some time.

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the expression grass widow—used in the sense of a married woman living apart from her husband—are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Svenskt och Engelskt Lexicon (Stockholm: Johan A. Carlbohm, 1788), a Swedish-English lexicon by Gustaf Widegren:

Grásenka, s. A married woman whose husband is absent, is during that time said to be a grass widow.

2-: From Histories of the Tête-à-Tête annexed; or, Memoirs of the Martinet and the Divorced Marton [sic]. (No. 7, 8), by Joseph Banks (1743-1820), published in The Town and Country Magazine; or, Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction, and Entertainment (London, England) of March 1788:

She sued him, and obtained a divorce from the chains of matrimony, accompanied by a sufficiency of fortune to support her for life in a state of independence.
Emancipated from the coercion of her tyrant, she determined upon enjoying the gaieties of life […].
The object was a soldier, and a soldier of fortune; and she had wound up her affection to such a romantic pitch, that she would, at least she thought she would, with pleasure carry his knapsack over the world. But our soldier, though of a soul susceptible of the tender passion, had placed prudence upon his heart as an out-post, and had long determined never to travel bag and baggage. He had come to Bath with the purpose of carrying off some fair one, whose fortune would afford him comfortable quarters for life; and the possessions of our heroine were not competent to that end.
He perceived, however, and he perceived with pleasure, the impression he had made on the bosom of the grass widow; and resolved upon making his advances in form. The citadel he thought easy of access:—it had been possessed before; and there being now no garrison in it, he concluded it could not stand a siege.

3-: From Svenskt och Tyskt-Franskt-Engelskt Hand-Lexicon (Örebro: Nils Magnus Lindh, 1814), a Swedish-German-French-English lexicon by Sven Niclas Wahrman:

Grásenka, s. Strohwittwe. Femme dont le mari est absent pour quelque tems. Grass-widow.

4-: From The News (London, England) of Sunday 9th October 1814:

The Princess of Wales 2 and the Archduchess Maria Louisa 3, late Empress of France, passed through Berne on the 22d last. They are both what is called grass widows.

2 Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821) was the estranged wife of George Augustus Frederick (1762-1830), Prince of Wales from 1762 to 1820, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland as George IV from 1820 to 1830.
3 Marie Louise (1791-1847) was the second wife of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French as Napoléon I, who was then in exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba.

5-: From The Duke Unveiled, or A New Royal Hatching, by ‘M. B.’, published in The New Bon Ton Magazine; or, Telescope of the Times (London, England) of Monday 1st March 1819:

A recent royal marriage was very highly panegyrized, as likely to be productive of much happiness. The domestic blessings of private life seemed for once to be transferred over to rank and title, and content, with smiling aspect, for once was seen to cross the threshold of a palace.
But, alas! as might well be supposed, she did not abide long in the dwelling of princes; she has been rudely expelled from her mansion of promising hope, and become, as usual, a sojourner with the poor. […]
The husband is now a fugitive, and the wife a grass widow, no longer most blest, most happy, rich in universal admiration, crowned with prosperity, the idol of exalted spirits, and delight of the world.

6-: From A Statistical, Commercial, and Political Description of Venezuela, Trinidad, Margarita, and Tobago: Containing Various Anecdotes and Observations; Illustrative of the Past and Present State of these Interesting Countries; From the French of M. Lavaysse (London: Printed for G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1820), by J.-J. Dauxion Lavaysse (c.1770-1826), translated by Edward Blaquiere (1779-1832)—the following is from the account of a visit to the Black Caribs in January 1793:

[page 433] A RENCONTRE.
The history of poor Marguerite is not long. Ten years ago, when at the age of twenty, she was then very pretty, and had not much predilection for black lovers. Larose, who traded with Saint Lucia and Martinico, paid his addresses to her, and proposed taking her with him to Saint Vincent’s, where she would be a great lady amongst the Caribs. She suffered herself to be
[page 434] A GRASS WIDOW.
persuaded: but, alas! the chaste Helen was not aware that there are Caribs who have as many as three or four wives! “How do they manage, my friend,” said I, with a significant smile, “to make you all happy?” “Ah, my dear youth,” she replied, with tears in her eyes, “look out at the window, and you will see three huts in the garden there.”—“So that in every three weeks you are a widow for a fortnight?” “Yes,” said she, pressing my hand and rolling her eyes affectionately: “it was so at first; but it is long since Larose has ceased to think of me!”

7.1 & 7.2-: From The Rambler’s Magazine; or, Fashionable Emporium of Polite Literature (London, England) of Friday 1st March 1822:

7.1-: From the title of a letter 4 by ‘Rebecca Repentance’:


4 The expression grass widow did not occur in the letter itself, in which ‘Rebecca Repentance’ explained how she had come to live apart from her husband, and asked the Editor of The Rambler’s Magazine to put her “in the way how to be reconciled with him [i.e., her husband]”.

7.2-: From a comment by the Editor of The Rambler’s Magazine—this comment immediately followed the letter by ‘Rebecca Repentance’, which was itself immediately preceded by a letter “from T. Figgins Cheshire, requesting advice in the choice of a wife”:

We insert this, and the letter preceding, from motives of philanthrophy [sic]. In neither case are we capable of giving advice. We are not looking out for a wife, nor are we acquainted with the cases of Grass Widows, but we have no doubt that some of our intelligent Correspondents will reply to them both, and we promise to give the answer a conspicuous place in our next number.

8-: From Amours and Intrigues of a Queen 5, in Royal Intrigues and Amours, of Many Illustrious Persons, Related to the Court of St. J——’s. By a Distinguished Courtier (London: Printed for the booksellers, and sold by G. Cockburn, 1830):

Early in the year 1801, the Courageaux [sic] ship of war, of 80 guns, was sitting out at Woolwich, and commanded by the late Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. My Heroine came on board on a visit, with only one female attendant (the same who afterwards had her neck broken by a fall from her mistress’s curricle). Music and dancing were the order of the day, and she entered into the sports with a vivacity that astonished many.
It was known that she was living apart from her husband, and the Naval free-thinking officers made every allowance for her being a “grass widow.”

5 This refers to Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821)—cf., supra, note 2.

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