mid-14c., "female spinner of thread," from Middle English spinnen "spin fibers into thread" (see spin (v.)) + -stere, feminine suffix (see -ster). Unmarried women were supposed to occupy themselves with spinning, hence the word came to be "the legal designation in England of all unmarried women from a viscount's daughter downward" [Century Dictionary] in documents from 1600s to early 1900s, and by 1719 the word was being used generically for "woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it."
Spinster, a terme, or an addition in our Common Law, onely added in Obligations, Euidences, and Writings, vnto maids vnmarried. [John Minsheu, "Ductor in Linguas," 1617]
Strictly in reference to those who spin, spinster also was used of both sexes (compare webster, Baxter, brewster) and so a double-feminine form emerged, spinstress "a female spinner" (1640s), which by 1716 also was being used for "a maiden lady." Related: Spinsterhood.
Old English -istre, from Proto-Germanic *-istrijon, feminine agent suffix used as the equivalent of masculine -ere (see -er (1)). Also used in Middle English to form nouns of action (meaning "a person who ...") without regard for gender.
The genderless agent noun use apparently was a broader application of the original feminine suffix, beginning in the north of England, but linguists disagree over whether this indicates female domination of weaving and baking trades, as represented in surnames such as Webster, Baxter, Brewster, etc. (though modern spinster probably carries an originally female ending).
Also compare whitester "one who bleaches cloth;" kempster (c. 1400; Halliwell has it as kembster) "woman who cleans wool." Chaucer ("Merchant's Tale") has chidester "an angry woman" (the 17c. had scoldster). Also compare Middle English shepster (late 14c.) "dressmaker, female cutter-out," literally "shapester," sleestere (mid-15c.) "murderess, female killer" ("slay-ster"). Sewster "seamstress" (Middle English seuestre, late 13c. as a surname, also used of men) is still in Jonson but was obsolete or provincial after 17c. In Modern English, the suffix has been productive in forming derivative nouns (gamester, roadster, punster, rodster "angler," etc.).
Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to draw, stretch, spin."
It forms all or part of: append; appendix; avoirdupois; compendium; compensate; compensation; counterpoise; depend; dispense; equipoise; expend; expense; expensive; hydroponics; impend; painter (n.2) "rope or chain that holds an anchor to a ship's side;" pansy; penchant; pend; pendant; pendentive; pending; pendular; pendulous; pendulum; pension; pensive; penthouse; perpendicular; peso; poise; ponder; ponderous; pound (n.1) "measure of weight;" prepend; prepense; preponderate; propensity; recompense; span (n.1) "distance between two objects;" span (n.2) "two animals driven together;" spangle; spanner; spend; spider; spin; spindle; spinner; spinster; stipend; suspend; suspension.
It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Latin pendere "to hang, to cause to hang," pondus "weight" (perhaps the notion is the weight of a thing measured by how much it stretches a cord), pensare "to weigh, consider;" Greek ponos "toil," ponein "to toil;" Lithuanian spendžiu, spęsti "lay a snare;" Old Church Slavonic peti "stretch, strain," pato "fetter," pina "I span;" Old English spinnan "to spin," spannan "to join, fasten; stretch, span;" Armenian henum "I weave;" Greek patos "garment," literally "that which is spun;" Lithuanian pinu "I plait, braid," spandau "I spin;" Middle Welsh cy-ffiniden "spider;" Old English spinnan "draw out and twist fibers into thread," spiðra "spider," literally "spinner."
1630s, "striped silk taffeta," from French tabis "a rich, watered silk" (originally striped), earlier atabis (14c.), from Arabic 'attabi, from 'Attabiyah, a neighborhood of Baghdad where such cloth was made, said to be named for prince 'Attab of the Omayyad dynasty. As an adjective from 1630s.
Tabby cat, one with a striped coat, is attested from 1690s; shortened form tabby first attested 1774. "The wild original of the domestic cat is always of such coloration" [Century Dictionary]. Sense of "female cat" (1826) may be influenced by the fem. proper name Tabby, a pet form of Tabitha, which was used in late 18c. as slang for "spiteful spinster, difficult old woman."
"bent or vertical handle for turning a revolving axis," Old English *cranc, implied in crancstæf "a weaver's instrument," crencestre "female weaver, spinster," which is related to crincan "to bend, yield," from Proto-Germanic *krank- "bend, curl up" (see cringe).
English retains the literal sense of the ancient word ("something bent or crooked"), while in other Germanic languages it tends to have only a figurative sense (German and Dutch krank "sick," formerly "weak, small"). The Continental definition entered into English crank via slang counterfeit crank "one who shams sickness to get charity" (1560s). OED notes that "the 16th c. vagabonds' cant contains words taken directly from Continental languages." It apparently lingered in the north (the 1825 supplement to Jamieson's Scottish dictionary has crank "infirm, weak, etc.") and might have influenced the development of the English word.
Meaning "twist or turn of speech, grotesquery in words" is from 1590s; that of "absurd or unreasonable act" (perhaps caused by "twisted judgment") is from 1848. The sense of "eccentric person," especially one who is irrationally fixated, is first recorded 1833; this sometimes is said to be from the crank of a barrel organ, which makes it play the same tune over and over; but more likely it is a back-formation from cranky (q.v.) and thus from the notion of one having a mental "twist."
The person who adopts "any presentiment, any extravagance as most in nature," is not commonly called a Transcendentalist, but is known colloquially as a "crank." [Oliver W. Holmes, "Ralph Waldo Emerson"]
There also was a crank (adj.) in Middle English meaning "lively, brisk, merry," but it is of uncertain origin and connection. Cranky for "merry, lively" lingered into 19c. in northern England dialects and American English. Meaning "methamphetamine" attested by 1989, from the verb.