Mike from Glen Arbor recalls that he and his peers used to refer to little old ladies as biddies, and now he wonders where that came from.
Biddy seems to have had two sources. First of all, it was used to refer to a chicken. The Oxford English Dictionary has reservations, but perhaps it came from the Gaelic bîdeach, meaning “very small.” Eventually, it was used as a slang term for an old woman, especially one seen as intrusively inquisitive or gossipy.
Francis Grose, in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, implies that biddy came from chick-a-biddy, the cry of a young child to attract a chicken. Figuratively, says Grose, it was then applied to “a young wench.”
The second and more recent source was the name Bridget, a stereotypical Irish name, like Pat or Mike for males. In the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, young Irish women streamed into this country as domestic servants, their ocean voyage paid by their employers, then worked off over a period of years.
Bridget was shortened to Biddy, as this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes shows: “Poor Bridget, or Biddy, our red-armed maid of all work!” [The Autocrat of the Breakfast-table, 1858]
An interesting offshoot was psycho-biddy, a term used by movie critics in the 1960s and 1970s to describe a horror or thriller movie in which an older woman was the villain or the victim. Two examples are What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
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