Words: spinster, n.

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THE Brighton Evening Argus described a murdered woman in Worthing as a spinster. It must use the Collins dictionary, which lets it pass without warning. The Concise Oxford calls it "chiefly derogatory" and Encarta an "offensive term".

A Middle English word for one who spins fibre (from the Old English spin with many Teutonic variants), it is first cited by the OED from the early 18th century as a term for a woman bereft of any alternative pleasure. Johnson, however, saw an instance in Othello.

Absent from all these is its contrasting, 17th-century sense of prostitute or adulterer - from the punning phrase "to make crooked spindles": the neglect of wifely duties for other pleasures. Perhaps Bridget Jones will soon revive a crooked spindle.