Date: Wed, 8 Oct 1997 09:16:56 -0700
From: Peter McGraw pmcgraw[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]LINFIELD.EDU
I don't remember where I first encountered the term "widow's weeds," but
it was clear to me that it was archaic/literary, and it was always clear
from the context that it meant "clothes that a widow wears to a funeral."
I don't think I've ever run across this "weed" ( OE waed, imagine a
ligature and a macron) either in the singular or without the "widow."
I was astonished recently to run across someone (a copyeditor for a major
publishing house, yet) who claimed not to understand the term at all, and
further investigation revealed that college-age people I asked not only
had never encountered it but were unable to guess its meaning even when
offered the context, "At the funeral, the grandmother wore widow's weeds."
("Some kind of plant?!" one wondered.) The older the person asked, the
more likely they were to have heard it, or if they said they had never
heard it, they could still guess that it meant mourning clothes generally
or perhaps some specific item of clothing.
My question: does anyone know if this term ("weed" or "weeds," with or
without the widow) survives anywhere in living speech?