Origin of the Words, Shell-shocked and Spinster

Published: 20th October 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th October 2014 12:39 PM   |  A+A-

This week’s column focuses on a query by a reader from Coimbatore: What is the origin of the terms ‘spinster’ and ‘shell-shocked’?

A man who suffered a heart attack was admitted to a hospital run by nuns. A nun in-charge of accounts asked the patient how he would like to pay for his treatment. She asked him if he had health insurance. The man replied, “No”. “Do you have money in your bank account?” He replied, “No, I don’t have a bank account”. “Do you have any relative who can help you?” The patient replied, “I have a spinster sister, who is a nun”. The nun said angrily, “Nuns are not spinsters. They are married to God”. The patient said coolly, “Great. Please send the bill to my brother-in-law.”

The word ‘spinster’ originally had a different meaning. In the fourteenth century Spinster was used in the sense of a ‘woman who spins thread’ but in the current sense (since 1719) it has been used to refer to a woman who is past the usual age for marriage but remains unmarried. In modern English, the term does not have a positive connotation and spinsters do not want to be called spinsters.

The original meaning of the term ‘shell shocked’ is different from its current meaning. The term that originated during the First World War referred to ‘psychological disturbance caused by prolonged exposure to active warfare, especially being under bombardment’ of shells. In simpler terms, it is the mental illness or discomfort caused by war. It was believed that due to the explosion of shells nearby, the brain was rattled and it caused neurological problems.

Shell shock was first used in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1915, by Capt. Charles Myers. Based on the case studies of three soldiers exposed to exploding shells, Myers concluded that the soldiers had exhibited symptoms such as reduced visual fields, loss of smell, taste and memory. The other terms used to describe the condition are: battle fatigue, combat fatigue, and combat neurosis. The term is used to refer to a psychological condition of soldiers that results from prolonged exposure to war. In his 2011 novel Shell Shock: The Diary of Tommy Atkins British novelist Neil Blower chronicles the difficulties faced by a young British soldier who returns home from Iraq and Afghanistan and suffers from profound posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The term is now used figuratively to refer to any mental confusion or a state of shock or fatigue experienced by a person and has nothing to do with experience in a war. The adjectival form of the term is shell-shocked. This widely used term has these meanings: in a state of stunned confusion or shock or in a state of fatigue as in the examples below:

• Many AIADMK fans suffered shell shock when they heard that the bail plea of their leader, Jayalalitha was rejected by the Karnataka High Court.

• The two young children were shell shocked by their parents’ divorce.


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