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May 5, 2005

Slang of the Week: old maid (noun phrase)
a kernel of popcorn that didn’t pop when heated

Example:
Mary had to leave in the middle of the movie when she broke her tooth on an old maid.

Celebrity quote:
“Today the best popcorn pops twice as big as the popcorn of 50 years ago and leaves as little as one-fourth as many unpopped kernels, called old maids.”
-Joshua Foer, in the May 2005 issue of Discover Magazine

Every once in a while, I like to look at vintage slang. Since before Shakespeare’s time, old maid has been cruel slang for an older, unmarried woman. The term implies that the woman was left behind because no one wanted her. Since it is left at the bottom of the bowl, never to be chosen, the unpopped popcorn was given the same name.

In the 1970s, people struggled to find a less negative term for unmarried women over thirty. But now that more women have joined the workforce and can choose to marry or not, they are usually just called “single” regardless of their age.

On an interesting cultural note, I learned from a Japanese friend that in her country, the term for an old maid is “Christmas cake” because it’s no good after December 25th, and women (at least at one time) were seen as too old for marriage after 25.

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