By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot. My Dad always wanted me to do a video about the expression grass widow, so today, the first anniversary of his death, we’re going to look at that and the word widow more generally. This video is dedicated to him and my Mom.
The word widow comes ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to divide or separate”, the notion being that a widow is a woman who is divided from her husband by death. We get widow through the Germanic branch of languages from Old English wuduwe, but that Proto-Indo-European root also gives us the words divide, devise, and device, from the Latin verb dividere literally “to divide apart”. The word divide will become important again a little later. The sense of devise comes about through the notion of “to dispose in portions or arrange a division” and thus “arrange, plan, contrive”, and I guess there’s still an echo of the original sense in the expression “to devise a will”, which brings us back to widows.
In western cultures we typically think of widows wearing black to show they’re in mourning, but this colour association isn’t universal. For instance in India, according to Hindu tradition, a widow wears white, but the idea is similar: to avoid wearing colourful clothing and adornments. As we’ll see, this example of Indian custom isn’t just a random digression.
By the 20th century the expression grass widow meant“a married woman whose husband is away often or for a prolonged period”, for instance on business trips, or because he’s away playing golf a lot. However, when the expression was first used by Sir Thomas More in the early 16th century it had quite a different meaning, referring to a “discarded mistress” or “unmarried woman who has cohabited with one or more men”. This original sense might have something to do with the discarded mistress being “put out to grass” as it were, or more likely it might suggest something of the same notion as does the etymology of the word bastard. Bastard comes from the Latin term bastum meaning “pack saddle” and the pejorative suffix -ard, and mirrors the Old French expression fils de bast, literally “packsaddle son”. The idea is that a bastard is the product of an impromptu sexual encounter with only a packsaddle as a make-shift pillow instead of the proper marital bed. So in a similar way, grass widow probably reflects the notion of a roll in the hay, a one-off sexual encounter out in the fields or in a barn, the mistress afterwards being abandoned. That Latin word bastum, by the way, ultimately comes from the Greek word bastazein “to carry”, hence its use for packsaddle, and this root also gives us the word batman — no not the superhero Batman, but the term for a military officer’s servant. The term was originally applied to a cavalry officer’s servant who was in charge of the bat-horse, in other words the pack horse, and its load, before being broadened to refer to any officer’s servant. The term batman came to be replaced by the word orderly, but earlier in the British army, as in the days of the British Raj or British rule in India, batman was the usual term. And I bring up India again, because it’s there, during the British Raj, that grass widow, to get back to that expression again, may have gained its more modern sense of a married woman whose husband is away. You see the wives of the officers were sent off to the cooler (and greener) hill stations during the hot summer months while their husbands had to remain on duty in the hotter plains.
In addition to grass widow often referring to the wife of a man who is engaged in obsessional activities such as golf, we have the more specific term golf widow, and as it turns out, the game of golf is also connected to our story. It’s often popularly assumed that the game of golf was invented in medieval Scotland, but as shown by the name’s probable origin in Dutch kolf meaning “club”, the game seems to have deeper roots. The Dutch game of kolven, played on an indoor court, involves hitting a ball back and forth to a post and being the first to return to the starting point. Some have tried to connect golf back further to various ancient Greek and Roman ball-and-stick games (though many sound more like field hockey than golf), and in particular the Roman paganica in which players used a bent wooden stick to strike a stuffed leather ball in an attempt to hit a target such as a rock or a tree. Another suggestion is that golf came from a Chinese ball-and-stick game called chuiwan in which players used a set of up to 10 different clubs to knock balls into holes, though how this Ming Dynasty game made it to Europe is a little uncertain. However a more likely suggestion arises from the similarity between golf and an old French cross-country game called chicane in which a ball is to be driven in the fewest possible strokes to a church or garden door. Chicane is a variation of a game known variously as jeu de mail or chole, which is an ancestor of croquet. Due to the similarity in name, chicane may in turn be derived from the Persian game called chaugán, which is also the forerunner of polo. The word chaugán again refers to the bent mallet or stick the game is played with. If all this is true, this would make golf and polo distant relatives. And if the word chicane (or chicane) sounds familiar, it’s also used to refer to the barrier used to create sharp turns in motorsport, and in the form chicanery means “deception or trickery” by way of metaphor. Etymology is a tricky game! A deeper etymology of the name chaugán is suggested in the great 19th century Anglo-Indian dictionary Hobson-Jobson. It might come from the Indian Prakrit language with the sense “fourfold or four corners” in reference to the playing field. And this once again brings us back to British India.
Because it’s in that Anglo-Indian dictionary that we first find the notion that grass widow gains its modern sense from those officers’ wives up in the hill stations. Hobson-Jobson notes of the earlier ‘discarded mistress’ sense that “no such opprobrious meanings attach to the Indian use” though “this slang phrase is applied in India, with a shade of malignity, to ladies living apart from their husbands, especially as recreating at the Hill stations, whilst the husbands are at their duties in the plains”. What that “shade of malignity” implies is not entirely clear, but may perhaps suggest some sort of extra-marital affairs going on in those hill stations.
And speaking of Hobson-Jobson, the dictionary is dedicated to collecting colloquial words and phrases that came into English duringBritish rule in India. Many of these words come from one of the numerous languages spoken in the Indian subcontinent, and the dictionary contains many detailed etymological discussions. You’d be forgiven for thinking the dictionary was written by lexicographers named Hobson and Jobson, but in fact the authors are Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell. The name comes about from an item in the dictionary itself. It’s the Anglicized form of the repeated cries of “Yā Hasan! Yā Husayn!” of Muslims as they beat their breasts in the Muharram procession, and from this referring to the festival itself or more broadly any festival. This phonological shift to Hosseen Gosseen, Hossy Gossy, Hossein Jossen and, ultimately, Hobson-Jobson, eventually also gives rise to the Law of Hobson-Jobson describing the process of adapting a foreign word to the sound-system of the adopting language. Yule and Burnell chose the title as emblematic of the dictionary as a whole, and in a sense we can see this adoption and adaption process as emblematic of the British Raj itself.
You see India, and the wealth it represented, was crucial to Britain’s imperialist project, and it’s not surprising that the country was referred to as the “jewel in the crown”. So it was important for Britain to hold on to India. Initially India was under the control of the the British East India Company, a trade monopoly set up for conducting business with the far east. But after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, the British government took direct control over the administration of India. The Sepoys were the Indian soldiers used by the East India Company to control their holdings. The causes of the mutiny are many and complex, but include the necessity of biting open paper gun cartridges to load their rifles — unfortunately these cartridges may have been greased with tallow or cow fat, thus offensive to Hindus, or pork fat, thus offensive to Muslims; another, particularly relevant to this story, was the abolition of the sati, the ritual in which a widow immolates herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre; and in general Company policies that didn’t take into account problems related to the caste system in India, for instance soldiers sent overseas potentially losing their caste. These sorts of culturally insensitive policies lay behind the growing tensions in India at the time, and particularly among the Sepoy soldiers. After Britain took direct control over India new policies were put in place that instead manipulated Indian customs for the benefit of imperial control.
And when they took control, Britain went back to another of those words from the PIE root for ‘to separate’ and adopted a policy of divide and rule during the Raj. This political strategy, often expressed with the Latin tag divide et impera, (impera being the root ofempire, by the way), goes back a long way. The idea is that a ruling power can maintain control better by breaking up larger groups within a population so that there are no large concentrations of power to challenge the ruler or rulers, and furthermore to foment rivalries and discord among the population to reduce the chances of unified opposition. This political philosophy has been linked with such figures as Philip of Macedon, Julius Caesar, Machiavelli, and Napoleon. Well this principle was explicitly adopted by the British authorities in India — as expressed in several official memos and letters: “Our endeavor should be to uphold in full force the (fortunate for us) separation which exists between different religions and races, and not to endeavor to amalgamate them. Divide et impera should be the principle of Indian Government.” So in order to forestall any further army mutinies, regiments were organized along racial and religious lines, Hindu, Muslim, and so forth. And in elections, divisions were maintained along religious lines as well, with separate electorates. And all these groups were played off against each other. Religious groups became politicized categories.
However, after WWII, the incoming Labour government adopted a policy of an independent India. In part this was due to what they saw as a high probability of rebellion or civil war, not wanting it to happen on Britain’s watch. But in light of the growing Cold War, they also favoured the idea of a unified India with a unified army. However, the divisions they had sown during the Raj made the partition of India the final poisoned gift of a retreating colonial power. Lord Mountbatten, a naval officer, grandson of Queen Victoria, uncle of Prince Philip and second cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II, was appointed Viceroy of India to oversee independence. And though he and Indian leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru favoured a unified India, Muslim leaders such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as well as Hindu fundamentalists, wanted a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. This was in keeping with the longstanding British mentality of divide and rule. Partition in 1947 became the largest peacetime movement in history: some 17 million people moved to be on the “right” side of the border. Perhaps 1 million were killed in the chaos and violence that resulted.
As for Mountbatten, as India was then still a dominion of the Commonwealth, he stayed on briefly as the new Dominion of India’s first Governor General, to Nehru’s first prime minister. He made a similar offer to stay on as Pakistan’s governor general but was turned down, with Jinnah filling that role. As it happens, Mountbatten was also an aficionado of polo, a sport he picked up in an earlier trip to India as part of a royal tour in the winter of 1921-1922. The sport became a passion for him and he went on to not only write a book on the subject, but also receive a patent for a polo stick. Along with polo, the other thing Mountbatten picked up on that royal tour in 1921 was a wife, Edwina, née Ashley, remembered for her efforts at mitigating the post-partition violence and suffering. Their marriage was an open one, with each having acknowledged affairs. I suppose we could call her something of a grass widow (though I hesitate to use the term with any “shade of malignity”), as it was Louis Mountbatten’s devotion to the navy (though one wonders about the polo as well) which took him away from married life and led to Edwina’s affairs. Purportedly she had a very close relationship with India’s first prime minister Nehru.
The ironic coda to all of this is that Mountbatten was assassinated in 1979 by the IRA, the product of another example of British divide and rule colonial policies, who planted an explosive in his fishing boat, ironic because he worked against the partition in India (to no avail). However, this didn’t leave Edwina Mountbatten a widow as she had predeceased him in 1960, leaving Lord Mountbatten a widower, in this case the masculine form of widow, not something that makes a woman into a widow, though there is a rarely used word widower to mean widow-maker—which etymologically, I suppose, means “a division-maker”, just what the British Raj had been, and what Mountbatten tried, and failed, not to be.
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