A widow is a woman whose spouse has died and has not remarried. A widower is a man similarly bereft.
What is the difference between widow and widower?
In the event that you’re writing about someone whose spouse has died, you’ll likely need to use the words “widow” and “widower.” But which term should you use?
If you’re referencing a woman, the correct noun to use is “widow.” If the surviving spouse is a man, use “widower.” If either person remarries, they are no longer a widow or widower.
A slight bend-of-rules occurs for the verb “widow” and the adjective “widowed,” which can describe a widow or widower. What do these terms mean? Keep reading to find out.
Sentence examples in this article may be upsetting for readers grieving a loved one. A list of helpful resources are provided by the Center for Grief Recovery and Therapeutic Services here.
What does widow and widower mean?
According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, the noun “widow” references a woman whose spouse has died and has not remarried. “Widower” references a man similarly bereft, and neither term applies in the event of remarriage (Garner 968).
Derived forms of the noun include widowhood (‘the state of being a widow’) and widowly, an adjective coined in the 16th century to mean ‘resembling or characteristic of a widow.’ Meanwhile, “widowed” (the past participle of widow) lends itself as an adjective for both genders, as well.
One particular article from Refinery29 uses widow, widower, widowhood, and widowed in several eloquent ways:
- “In my friend’s defense, it’s apparently proper etiquette to keep calling widows ‘Mrs.’ forever.”
- “How is a young widow supposed to act? Do I seem too happy? Too sad? Did I mention Jon too much in that conversation?”
- “… while I love ‘80s décor and an early bedtime, that’s as close as I get to fulfilling that particular stereotype of widowhood.”
- “… they’re just a few men in a long list of widower heartthrobs from TV and movies, like The Holiday, Love Actually, and Sleepless in Seattle.”
- “Widowed women, on the other hand, are consistently portrayed as elderly, downtrodden cat ladies — not to mention, giant dating red flags.”
Additional examples of widow, widower, and more:
- “The psychological distress of processing his spouse’s death pushed the widower to join a therapy group with other older men.”
- “The widow is survived by two beloved children.”
- “In addition to losing all social security benefits, the previously widowed educator lost all tax return and pension benefits.”
- “Widowers often experience loneliness and depression from a lack of social support in old age.”
Widow as a verb
As a transitive verb, “widow” means “to cause someone to become a widow or widower,” meaning it can reference a woman or man. Less often, the verb means “to strip or deprive someone of something greatly valued or needed.”
Recent examples found online include:
- “Widowed by COVID-19, Missouri mom also loses the only home her kids have ever known.” — The Kansas City Star
- “Born in North Carolina as Mary Ann Evards, she went by her middle name and was widowed when her first husband was killed in a railroad accident.” — Star Tribune
Single, unmarried, unwed, unwedded.
The words widow and widower derive from Old English widewe through an Indo-European root that means “be empty.” The first known use of widower is thought to have occurred in the late 14th century, with later interpretations of widow following shortly after.
Additional definitions of widow
The word widow has several other definitions and uses to know, some of which you probably use without realizing. Let’s take a look.
Making light of a tragedy, the noun widow can also reference a woman or man whose spouse is frequently absent playing sports or engaging in other activities. One example comes from The Collins Dictionary, which defines a “golf widow” as “a woman whose spouse frequently leaves her alone to go and play golf.”
Fun fact: the first known use of “golf widow” lands between 1915 and 1920 and has since evolved to reference activities like football, tennis, fishing, and even videogames. For example,
- “Amy is a variation on the golf widow: a golf only-child (to her brothers) and a golf orphan (to her father).” — Golf Digest
The meaning of widow extends itself to “widowmaker” (or “widow-maker”), a 16th-century term that describes anything that is “lethally dangerous.” Nowadays, we primarily find “widowmaker” in reference to a massive heart attack or a large tree branch that could fall and crush someone.
- “Sabathia said he was scared upon learning of a 90 percent blockage found in the widowmaker artery, an ominous nickname for the left anterior descending artery, a critical blood vessel leading into the heart.” — The New York Times
- “It wasn’t too big, maybe 30 feet at the crown with a trunk about 15 inches in diameter — not your typical widowmaker, but large enough to warrant respect.” — Flathead Beacon
There is one other use of “widowmaker” that doesn’t imply a literal cause of death. According to Investopedia, the term widowmaker occurs in the financial world to reference a trade that results in a large, catastrophic loss or one that “repeatedly confounds market consensus and even defies historical patterns, resulting in losses for everyone who tries the trade.” (The near opposite is called a “widow-and-orphan stock.”)
- “She has personally bought bearish put options on the stock, contracts that have sunk in value as the stock has continued its climb. ‘Tesla is my widowmaker,’ she said.” — The Wall Street Journal
The noun widow also makes an appearance in the term “grass widow” (circa 1699), which Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines as “woman whose husband is temporarily away from her” or “a woman divorced or separated from her husband.”
- “Rihaee stands out as the only film in mainstream Hindi cinema to get across the message that a grass widow has every right to satisfy her sexual desires through alternate sources when her husband denies it to her.” — The Citizen
The phrase “widow’s peak” references a v-shaped receding hairline, which has long been thought to be an early omen of widowhood. Origins of the belief possibly cite the “peak” of a widow’s cap, a garment popularized in Victorian England but worn since the days of Caesar.
- “Indents at my temples look like they’re marching toward the beginnings of a widow’s peak.” — Allure
Anyone who works in print media can identify a “widow” as a separated, single line of type (from the end of a sentence or paragraph) that falls at the top of a column on the next page (the opposite error is called an “orphan”).
While the term originated in 1904 as “print shop slang,” page designers and editors still frown on page widows for their messy appearance, interruption of thought, and tendency to omit necessary context.
- “But the amount of time involved in recasting sentences to eliminate widows and orphans can be counterproductive, not to mention the risk each editor takes of creating errors when rewording text.” — The Baltimore Sun
When people say “widow,” they often think of a black widow spider (and maybe the comic book character). That’s because “widow” references a type of venomous spider (of the genus Latrodectus) named for the female’s alleged tendency to kill their mating partners.
- “Most species of widow spider (there are 31), including the western black widow found in the U.S., don’t kill their mates at all. Only two widow spider species always eat their mate — the Australian redback and the brown widow, an invasive species in California.” — KQED
Widowbirds from the bird family Viduidae are named for their black feathers reminiscent of a widow’s mourning attire.
- “In addition to primping up their appearance, the rest of the Jackson’s widowbirds’ mating ritual is quite elaborate.” — Atlas Obscura
In the United States, a “qualified widow” or “widower” is a tax filing designation that allows the living bereaved of a husband or wife to receive the same tax benefits as someone using “Married Filing Jointly” (same tax rates and highest standard deduction for up to three years). After the third year, the widowed must file as “Single” or “Head of Household.”
- “If you were not entitled to file a joint return for the tax year your spouse died, you might not be able to claim Qualified Widower.”
Lastly, the noun widow may reference an additional hand of cards (or part of a hand) in various games like poker and Three-Handed Whist (aka “Widow’s Whist”).
- “A Rummoli dealer can exchange their hand for the widow or auction it to the highest bidder.”
If you enjoyed reading widow vs. widower, be sure to check out relevant lessons from The Word Counter, such as:
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Test how well you understand the difference between widow and widower with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false?: A widow or widower status only applies to older adults or those with poor health outcomes.
- The main difference between the word “widow” and “widower” involves _____________?
a. Short-term vs. long-term marriages
b. One’s socioeconomic status
c. Gender differences
d. Never-married vs. married person
- The word widow does not reference ______________.
a. A spouse’s temporary absences
b. Dangerous spiders
c. One’s single filing status
d. An extra hand of cards
- Regarding print shop slang, the opposite of a “widow” is called a/an ______________.
b. Foster child
d. Dependent child
For the following questions, select the correct missing word.
- “Only one other person had a higher score on The Hare Psychopathy Checklist — a suspiciously _________ colleague.”
- “He said his partner’s Playstation addiction made a videogame __________ of him.”
- “Various online news sources reported the condition of the __________.”
d. A or B
- “The majority of respondents experiencing __________ say they were unable to enjoy vacation for the first two years.”
- Banerji, G. and G. Zuckerman. “The Agony of the Tesla Bears: $8.4 Billion of Losses in Five Weeks.” The Wall Street Journal, wsj.com, 9 Feb 2020.
- Breeding, R. “Dealing Yourself Out of the Gene Pool.” Flathead Beacon, flatheadbeacon.com, 2 Sept 2020.
- Brown, C. “Case of only woman executed in Minnesota is clouded with doubt.” Star Tribune, startribune.com, 2 May 2020.
- Chatterji, S. A. “Adultery in Indian Cinema.” The Citizen, thecitizen.com, 24 July 2019.
- Chen, J. “Widow maker.” Investopedia, investopedia.com, 27 Feb 2020.
- “Evolution of clothing (1895).” The Placer Herald, vol. 43, No 6, Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research, 2021.
- Finamore, E. “I’m A 31-Year-Old Widow, & I Don’t Know Where To Go From Here.” Refinery29, Vice Media Group, 12 July 2021.
- Garner, B. “Widow; widower.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 968.
- “Golf widow.” The Collins Dictionary, Penguin Random House LLC and HarperCollins Publishers, 2019.
- “Grass widow.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- Harper, D. “Widow.” Online Etymology Dictionary, etymonline.com, 2021.
- Kusmer, A. and E. Kennerson. “Why the Male Black Widow Spider Is a Real Home Wrecker.” KQED, kqed.org, 9 Jan 2018.
- Lee, M. “Postpartum Hair Loss Can Be Intense, But I’ve Found a Community of Support.” Allure, allure.com, 11 May 2021.
- McIntyre, J. E. “Never mind the widows and orphans.” The Baltimore Sun, baltimoresun.com, 28 Aug 2013.
- Rushin, S. “All In The Family.” Golf Digest, golfdigest.com, 22 Feb 2010.
- Wagner, J. “With a Patched-Up Heart, C.C. Sabathia Returns for One Final Run.” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 12 Apr 2019.
- “Widow.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- “Widow.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- “Widow’s peak.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- “Widow-and-orphan stock.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
- “Widower.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- “Widowly.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- Young, L. “Watch a Goofy Bird Do a Hopping Dance to Attract a Mate.” Atlas Obscura, atlasobscura.com, 5 May 2016.