The Chinese word "剩女" means "an unmarried girl over 27 without a boyfriend". Since better girls are already in love or married, some girls are left and it seems that no men are interested in them. The word has a negative meaning. A TV station in China translates the word into "leftover woman". I searched some English corpora and the data show clearly that the adjective 'leftover' is invariably collocated with food. So I think "leftover woman" is a miscollocation.

Do native speakers understand the meaning of "leftover woman" if it is used at all? Is it offensive?

I want to use the word "spinster", but it is a negative word. "Single" is unsuitable here because its meaning is too broad. What is the best neutral word or phrase for that meaning?

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    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 15:02
  • We need to know more. Is this for use in a novel? a newspaper article? an academic treatise? How often will you use the term in the text? Please give a sample sentence that shows how you want to use the phrase. Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 10:47
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7 Answers 7


There is not going to be an ideal fit for a neutral version of this term in English. Traditionally, older unmarried women were looked upon negatively So you have older words like spinster and old maid that have strongly negative connotations. There are also adjectives like unmarried and unattached that may come across as negative due to the un- form.

It is only in the last few generations that women living independent and unmarried lives has been widely regarded as neutral, let alone positive, so there are relatively few terms for them. Some collocations (like single woman) are technically fitting, though they don't pertain to a single age. Bachelorette might have fit at one time, though many English speakers will associate that word with the TV show The Bachelorette, which features a woman being taken on dates by a number of competing eligible men. So the neutral options don't exactly fit either.

So if you are translating the term, you may need to decide whether an English translation is sufficient or whether you need to translate literally and gloss the concept, a practice common in academia (JSTOR) but less common in other contexts.

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    Within the academic fields of Chinese Studies/Asian Studies, "leftover women" is the term for this. Maybe you can come up with a more polite term...but the concept itself does exist as a widespread social issue in China, and that is the term scholars actually use, so no need to create another.
    – Village
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 17:20
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    @Village 'Within the academic fields of Chinese Studies/Asian Studies ...' almost certainly implies that the terminology is not sufficiently standardised to be on-topic on ELU. Probably, most native speakers encountering the string 'leftover women' for the first time would treat it as a nonce term, meaning possibly wallflowers at a student party, and be worried about the propriety of the choice of words. Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 12:21
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    @EdwinAshworth Since Chinese demographics are of interest (and economic consequence) around the world, it’s likely that this issue will arise sooner rather than later. Given the one-child Chinese policy, only recently changed, there will also be a time of “leftover” men.
    – Xanne
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 5:46
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    In Greek there is a similar term: * en.wiktionary.org/wiki/γεροντοκόρη * el.wiktionary.org/wiki/γεροντοκόρη
    – tdgs
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 14:12
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    @tdgs And Japan has "Christmas cake" (the implication being that you've been "left on the shelf", and no-one will want you now).
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 9:59

Yes, "leftover woman" is the correct translation.

It may not be politically correct, or seem polite, but that is the term and it reflects Chinese cultural attitudes towards those women within Mainland China.

The word is used in China and in English-language literature on the subject, including in many peer-review journal articles. See Google Scholar, for example.

Outsiders to China will not likely know the meaning, so depending on your readers, an explanation must be given.

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    leftover woman has no meaning in English
    – Strawberry
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 11:48
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    I'm afraid that 'Outsiders to China will not likely know the meaning' almost certainly makes this too niche for ELU. Perhaps better on Linguistics, which considers language overlaps. Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 12:17
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    @Strawberry no defined meaning, no, but the phrase certainly makes sense; a woman who’s been leftover. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 0:20
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    @Fivesideddice - Leftover from what? Picking teams in dodgeball? Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 10:50
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    This seems an appropriate answer for some contexts, though not for all. Most native-speakers won’t be familiar with it and would require a little explanation to understand it, so it can’t just be used in isolation. But it’s reasonably widely used in e.g. journalism on the topic, not only in academic literature. For any context where the extra precision is worth giving a few words of explanation, this is an excellent answer.
    – PLL
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 12:09

Firstly, "leftover" doesn't unambiguously refer to food as in "last night's leftovers in the fridge".

A leftover anything is something that remains. For instance, "Bob went into the building one more time to grab a few leftover boxes and items, and then shut the door for good."

If the "leftover" is turned into a noun, and particularly if subsequently pluralized to "leftovers", then it has a stronger association with food: that word refers to uneaten food more often than not.

Outside of any context, "leftover woman" will not be unambiguously interpreted as an unmarried older woman. It could be a woman left behind in any conceivable situation: "Everyone was rescued from the island, except for one leftover woman."

But in a discussion about unmarried women, if the term is introduced, it will be clear what it refers to; and it will have a negative connotation, laced with sexism, possibly deeply offensive to some people. It has the interpretation of insinuating that a woman is just an item, and one without a husband is just an uncollected or unconsumed item.

"I want to use the word "spinster", but it is a negative word."

But you started this discussion with a negative Chinese word. If that Chinese word has connotations that a woman is just an item, and an unmarried one is just a wasted, unconsumed item, then "leftover woman" actually works. If it doesn't have connotations which are that bad, then "old maid" and such may be more appropriate.

In any case, the job of a translator isn't to produce a sugar-coated version of a text in another language.


Perhaps a "passed-over" woman, which puts focus on the actions of others, rather than suggesting a deficiency as "left-over" seems to.

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    I think this is an interesting suggestion. This could be a really good answer with more explanation of why "passed-over" might be a good choice.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 13:55
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    Our site is a bit different from other Q&As, as we emphasise the importance of authoritative answers backed up by evidence (preferably, a linked reference). So I would regard @ColleenV's helpful suggestion as a strong recommendation: please edit your post to add "more explanation of why passed-over might be a good choice." For further guidance, read How to Answer. :-) Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 7:53
  • Thank you very much fev, ColleenV and @Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica (very interesting to read about how you chose your moniker, although it chose you, didn't it?). Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 10:19

As mentioned by TaliesinMerlin, In English we have the (somewhat dated) term "old maid"...

old maid NOUN
1 derogatory A single woman regarded as too old for marriage.

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    I don’t think 27 is old enough for an “old maid”. A woman can be single and without a partner without being too old for anyone to want to marry.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 17:26
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    The question specifically says they don't want a word with negative connotations, so "derogatory" makes this a non-starter. And I don't think I've heard this term outside of period pieces for decades.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 14:26
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    @ColleenV a hundred years ago an unmarried woman of 25 was considered an old maid, past her prime with little chance of a good marriage. See for example newspapers.com/clip/13853547/… and kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/a/constance-wilcox-pignatelli/…
    – arp
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 3:40
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    @arp A lot of things were different 100 years ago. I don’t see how that’s relevant to a request for a modern English word.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 3:45
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    As the answer says, 'old maid' is a dated term; when it was in common use, it would certainly have been used for an unmarried and unpromised woman of 27.
    – arp
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 3:51

Not a direct match, but if she has her own job and life, "career woman" or "career-minded woman" or "single professional woman" might fit.

This is specific to the woman who puts more of her life into her job, and so her single state is her choice, or the result of her being busy, rather than because she is left over. Unlike spinster or old maid (both a bit Jane Austen!) it's not a negative term.

EDIT: The new answer from @aliental seems to support this, and we might add "independent woman" to the choices above, since this does seem to be an official term for a woman making these lifestyle choices. Of course, some career women also have boyfriends, so it's still not a perfect fit.


[ Sheng nu ](it's three words not one!) seems to be a joke rhyme of 剩余 [ shèng yú ], so if it were possible to find a rhyming chide, that would be a good translation. perhaps like a "debris dame", "Lady Leftover". "waste woman". "female fragments" I can't think of a very good one.

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