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2. Goodwife Used formerly as a courtesy title before the surname of a married woman not of noble birth.

Although I have studied the explanation, in fact, I couldn't make a head or tail of it! Especially, what is the concept of the bold part?

  • 1
    noble birth = born into a royal family – Apologize and reinstate Monica May 15 '15 at 14:56
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    @sgroves Born into a noble family--a family which holds a peerage--not a royal family – StoneyB on hiatus May 15 '15 at 15:08
  • @stoneyb that's what i meant, but i didn't know the word for it. is "royal family" reserved for the king and queen's family? – Apologize and reinstate Monica May 15 '15 at 15:59
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    @sgroves I don't think it has a technical definition, but it usually designates the immediate or extended family of a reigning monarch. – StoneyB on hiatus May 15 '15 at 16:29
  • Is this a quote? If yes, from where? – unor May 15 '15 at 20:53
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The easiest way to understand this usage of Goodwife is to think of it as "Mrs." but for married women (commoners) in the old days. According to Wikipedia,

Goodwife (Scots: Guidwife), usually abbreviated Goody, was a polite form of address for women, formerly used where "Mrs.", "Miss" and "Ms." would be used today. Its male counterpart is Goodman.


Now, let's focus on the part you do not understand: a married woman not of noble birth.

You can understand this phrase as a married woman (who is) not of noble birth. But what does not of noble birth mean? According to Macmillan Dictionary,

noble (adjective)
2. belonging to the highest social class. In the U.K., noble people usually have a title, for example Duke or Baroness
of noble birth/descent/blood: a young man of noble birth

So, not of noble birth means "not belonging to the highest social class". Thus, a married woman (who is) not of noble birth would mean "a married woman who is not belonging to the highest social class".


Bonus: How to understand the definition

2. Goodwife Used formerly as a courtesy title before the surname of a married woman not of noble birth.

= "Goodwife" (the word) was used "formerly" (in the past) as "a courtesy title" (a polite title, such as "Mr.", "Mrs.", etc.) before the "surname" (the last name or family name) of a "married woman" (a woman who is not single) (who is) "not of noble birth" (see the definition of "of noble birth" in my explanation above).

To make the parsing a bit clearer, here is how you can read it:

Goodwife: [ Used formerly [ as [ a courtesy title ] before [ the surname of [ a married woman [ not [ of noble birth ] ] ] ] ] ].

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    Also note that 'Mrs.' is actually an abbreviation for 'Mistress', and would be applied only to married women. Which is really odd, when you think of one of the other definitions of mistress :-) – jamesqf May 15 '15 at 17:33
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The term goodwife is rather archaic. I can't confess to understand the intricacies of the term, but I'll go over it as best I can.

The term noble birth in this context refers to someone born to nobles, the upper class of a society. A typical noble family would be rich, possess land, and perhaps political power.

In contrast, someone not of noble birth would be someone of a lower/middle class. From the definition, you would refer to someone as Goodwife instead of 'Mrs.'

If someone could provide more clarity here, (especially with regards to the location/time period in which this term would be used) I would appreciate it.

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodwife - 1300s-1800s in the UK and early N. American colonies. I recalled the term "Goody" being used to address older women in certain books, one of which is "The Crucible" where the accused "witch" is referred to as Goody Nurse. – mc01 May 15 '15 at 15:30
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    "possess land, and perhaps political power" -- and at least in English history, a title. Someone well-born whose family has no title is of the "gentry", not the "nobility". – Steve Jessop May 15 '15 at 18:14
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I remember a scene from the beginning of a novel (Black Magic Woman by Justin Gustainis). A woman is accused of witchcraft and hanged. The scene is set in Salem around 1650, I think. The judge addresses the woman as Goodwife + name. At that time it was an address for a woman as Mrs is today. Then men were addressed as Goodman + name.

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