A woman whose husband is away often or for a prolonged period, usually applied to those parted from their husbands by golf (played on grass) or similar obsessional activities. It has long been used in the USA in the sense of “a woman who is separated, divorced, or lives apart from her husband,” perhaps because her husband is still above the grass rather than under it.
The phrase has been around for about 500 years, but one thing hasn’t changed. The phrase has never meant an actual widow—that is, a woman whose husband is dead.
The phrase is first found written by Sir Thomas More in his Dialogue of 1529. AT that time it meant either a discarded mistress, especially one who had borne a child out of wedlock. It might have conceivably have come from the same type of origin as ‘bastard’ which is from the Latin ‘bastum’ for a pack saddle, suggesting a child born after a brief encounter on an improvised bed, such as a packsaddle pillow, whose owner had gone by morning.
There’s a theory that ties this original meaning to illicit cavorting in the grass as opposed to the feather-filled matrimonial bed, but there’s no solid evidence for that.
There is also a theory that has British officers in India sending their wives to the mountains (presumably where grass grew) to escape the bestial heat of the Indian summers, but there’s nothing to back up this idea, either.
In fact, the entire term “grass widow” may have come down to us from Germanic languages. The OED notes comparable words with the same meaning in Middle Low German (graswedewe), Dutch (grasweduwe), Swedish (gräsenka), and Danish (græsenke).
The phrase was still used in the sense of an illicit sexual partner well into the 1800s. On May 23, 1856, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Maria Fitzherbert, mistress of King George IV, as a “grass widow.” However, “grass widow” was gaining more respectable meanings in the mid-19th century.
This sense of “a married woman whose husband is absent from her,” the OED says, may have arisen after the original, pejorative meaning “had ceased to be generally understood.” In other words, meanings can and do change over the years.
The more respectable usage, Oxford suggests, may have been influenced by the 16th-century expression “turned out to grass,” in the figurative sense of being on vacation or freed from one’s duties.
Today, American Heritage has the broadest number of definitions: “1. A woman who is divorced or separated from her husband. 2. A woman whose husband is temporarily absent. 3. An abandoned mistress. 4. The mother of a child born out of wedlock.”
Yet another theory proposed that ‘grass window’ comes from ‘grace widow.’ But, nowhere in any official documents—religious or secular, English or American—is there a single instance of the phrase “grace widow.”
In his book Devious Derivations (2002), the editor and word sleuth Hugh Rawson calls “grace widow” a “false refinement.” As he writes, “The grass widow, divorced or otherwise separated from her husband, is not termed a widow by French grâce, as if this were a courtesy title.”
Finally, if you’re as fascinated as I am about how rock bands dream up their names, you will find it interesting that Grass Widow is an American indie rock band from San Francisco, California. Their music has been described as discordant and lo-fi, and connected to the post-punk roots of the members of the band.
I don’t think I’ll bother listening!