late 13c., wenche "girl, young woman," especially if unmarried, also "female infant," shortened from wenchel "child," also in Middle English "girl, maiden," from Old English wencel, probably related to wancol "unsteady, fickle, weak," from Proto-Germanic *wankila- (source also of Old Norse vakr "child, weak person," Old High German wanchal "fickle"), from PIE *weng- "to bend, curve" (see wink (v.)).
The wenche is nat dead, but slepith. [Wyclif, Matthew ix.24, c. 1380]
In Middle English occasionally with disparaging suggestion, and secondary sense of "concubine, strumpet" is attested by mid-14c. Also "serving-maid, bondwoman, young woman of a humble class" (late 14c.), a sense retained in the 19c. U.S. South in reference to slave women of any age. In Shakespeare's day a female flax-worker could be a flax-wench, flax-wife, or flax-woman.
Old English distæf "long, cleft stick that holds flax for spinning," from dis- "bunch of flax" (cognates: Middle Low German dise, Low German diesse "a bunch of flax on a distaff;" compare bedizen) + stæf "stick, staff" (see staff (n.) ).
Figurative of "women's work" from late 14c.; a synonym in English for "a woman, the female sex, female authority in the family," at least since late 15c., presumably because spinning was typically done by women of all ranks. Hence distaff side (1848) a 19c. collective name (affecting to be older) for the female members of a family, especially with reference to relationship and descent (opposed to the spear side).
St. Distaff's Day (1640s) was Jan. 7, when "women resumed their spinning and other ordinary employments after the holidays" [OED].
"to dupe, tease, fool," by 1930, apparently from rib (n.), which is attested by 1929 in a slang sense of "a joke," perhaps a figurative use of poking someone in the ribs (rib-digging "light-heated banter" is attested by 1925).
Earlier it meant "to plow land so as to leave a space between furrows (1735) and "to clean (flax) with a rib" (early 14c.), a special tool for that job, which is probably an extended sense of rib (n.). Compare Middle Low German ribbeisern ("rib-iron"), a tool for cleaning flax. Related: Ribbed; ribbing.
The original sense is of running thorns through wool or flax to separate, shred, or card the fibers. The figurative sense of "vex, worry, annoy" (sometimes done in good humor) emerged 1610s. For similar sense development, compare heckle. Hairdressing sense is recorded from 1957. Related: Teased; teasing; teasingly.
mid-15c., "instrument for crushing or pounding," from Middle Dutch braeke "flax brake," from breken "to break" (see break (v.)). The word was applied to many crushing implements, especially the tool for breaking up the woody part of flax to loosen the fibers. It also was applied to the ring through the nose of a draught ox. It was influenced in sense by Old French brac, a form of bras "an arm," thus the sense "a lever or handle," which was being used in English from late 14c., and "a bridle or curb" (early 15c.).
One or the other sense or a convergence of all of them yielded the main modern meaning "mechanical device for arresting the motion of a wheel," which is attested by 1772.