Saturday, August 04, 2012

Two dispatches from encounters between Mars and Venus.

After applying all over the South Shore of MA, RR walked into his town's library and enquired if he could put his application in. Right place at right time, a rarity in his life: someone was leaving, and he was in. RR, newly minted "Junior Library Assistant", is answering the phone.
"Good morning, Tufts Library, how may I help you?"
Two beats of silence.
"Oh, a man!"
"How may I direct your call?"
I knew this would pop up; just a matter of when . Small town libraries were traditionally staffed by local women; men were custodians, box movers or couriers. I got used to it. Colleagues groused about their husbands at break time, relating droll domestic anecdotes. SOP: keep 23 year old mouth shut, finish the smoke and get back upstairs.

Flash forward twenty + years. RR is now "Young Adult Services Coordinator'; ie, admin. He has a nice office on coordinator's row at the headquarters of a largish regional library system in another commonwealth.It is earning a rep as one of the best and most progressive libraries in the country. He is  happy to be there. His colleague next door, headquarters branch librarian, has the sweet spot, a corner office. RR's door is open. He is rabbiting away on policy,developing training, or most fun, buying books.
"Scott? What's distaff?"
"I beg your pardon, M---?"
"What is distaff?"
Rather than screeching back and forth like fishwives, RR gets up and walks the several paces to his colleague's office.
"You are, M---.  It is an old word sometimes used to refer to women. It could be hand held or mounted on a spinning wheel,if memory serves; traditionally used by women.Wherever did you come across that word?"
Survey forms had comment/question areas, and patrons (now customers) would  use them to suggest titles, etc.
"Someone on this comment sheet said 'The mysteries are taking a turn to the distaff side'."
"Ah. Forward that comment to A--.The commenter feels we are buying too many mysteries either by women or featuring women sleuths."

1 comment:

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

I seem to remember this subject cropping up as Blenheim Palace grew smaller and smaller on our lee, or perhaps as GCHQ grew larger on our heading. The surprising thing about "distaff" is the way it persisted given that it required a knowledge of spinning to make sense of its roots. In my experience it clung to life only in the phrase "on the distaff side" and I think by now it has finally traversed that difficult no-man's-land in the dictionary between obs. and ob..

Sentiment requires us to mourn the passing of words - any word - but I think I'm prepared to make an exception here. It was never a word that tempted me to look it up in the dictionary and two or three decades were to pass before I did so. I fear it was a word that irritated me and thus I feel entitled to suspend the nil nisi bonum rule on its behalf.