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This is about an expression used by a female manager at a hotel in Philadelphia (PA) some years ago. She was showing me around as part of my employment interview, and during this made a statement that she was "a plumber's wife".

She said this seemingly out-of-context. She was telling me about the hotel and then made this statement. The way she said it made it sound like she meant something else than the face value of the expression.

I ignored it at that point but later on thought that it was some idiomatic expression, because of how she had said it (I had just moved to USA from Europe and idiomatic english expressions sometimes got the best of me).

So what is a plumber's wife?

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    Are you sure she was trying to convey a meaning other than letting you know her husband was a plumber? – Widor Dec 19 '14 at 16:04
  • I suppose you should have asked her. Urban dictionary has at least one clue to another possible meaning, besides the literal words. – J.R. Dec 19 '14 at 16:12
  • @J.R.: I rather doubt OP's female hotel manager (and presumably, prospective employer) was telling him she was a "lady of easy virtue", so to speak! :) – FumbleFingers Dec 19 '14 at 17:50
  • Thanks folks, I have now updated my question to provide some more background on why I asked this question. – coderworks Dec 19 '14 at 18:59
  • @FumbleFingers Wouldn't such a plumber's wife be the wife of a gentleman of easy virtue? But I don't see why the person in question would necessarily disclose that to a new employee. Unless it was a chat-up-line and she was declaring herself available. – WS2 Dec 20 '14 at 0:15
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This is not a common idiomatic expression. It's likely that she meant it literally, and either it was a non-sequitur or you missed the context that would have explained it. For instance, if she had just mentioned some maintenance details about the hotel infrastructure, she could have been explaining that she pays attention to those kinds of details because of her husband's profession.

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Proverbially, a plumber is someone who fixes other people's plumbing problems, but never gets around to fixing the dripping tap in his own home. Plumbing is also (again, proverbially) seen as a relatively "low status" occupation, often with highly irregular hours.

So although plumber's wife isn't exactly an "established idiom", the allusion is likely to be that of a dependent wife, sitting at home wishing her husband would deal with minor domestic problems, and/or get a job with more regular hours, and/or get a job with higher status/wages.

For the record, less than half of the 55 instances of "a plumber's wife" in Google Books allow sight of the actual text - and of those, less than half-a-dozen appear to be contextually relevant. And I can't see any consistency in the specific attributes any given usage alludes to.


My guess is the hotel manager was simply making conversation - perhaps intending to reassure OP that he shouldn't feel intimidated by her (she and her husband are just "ordinary working stiffs").

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    Isn't the proverbial worker who solves everyone's problems except his own the shoemaker? (whose children are the worst shod) – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 19 '14 at 16:32
  • @Mr. Shiny and New: You've prompted me to Google "a cobbler's children are always ill-shod". Which led me to an earlier duplicate of this question - so arguably I should CV, but I'm ambivalent. – FumbleFingers Dec 19 '14 at 16:46
  • @FumbleFingers, perhaps you can give a link to the earlier question if it is relevant. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Dec 19 '14 at 16:54
  • @FumbleFingers "a dependent wife, sitting at home wishing her husband would deal with minor domestic problems, and/or get a job with more regular hours, and/or get a job with higher status/wages" - THAT MAY WELL BE IT – coderworks Dec 19 '14 at 19:01
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It may be a local version of the term "plumber's helper", which refers to a rubber suction cup attached to a long handle which is used to unclog toilets.

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    Somehow I doubt a woman is going to refer to herself as a toilet plunger. – Cyberherbalist Dec 21 '14 at 6:14

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