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Some time ago, I was watching a period drama that I don't remember the title of and can't recall enough about to be able to ascertain the title of. I believe it was British, though. In it was used a term ending in "-wife" that I didn't understand the meaning of, so I googled it. When I did, I learned that it was an archaic term for a woman who in olden times, back when it was illegal, would discreetly perform abortions. I do distinctly remember that it ended in "-wife" because I remember immediately making a clear association with the term "midwife" and thinking to myself that I should've been able to work out what it meant because of that and the given context. Also, it may have been a strictly British English term, not American English, but I can't swear by that.

I've tried to find the term again using Google and searching for words ending with "wife," but after looking quite exhaustively, I can't find it. I'm thinking maybe that's because it's an archaic term, a term no longer in use, so it's not coming up on the normal wordfinder sites, like for Scrabble and whatnot. Or maybe that's because it's not "family friendly" enough for such sites-- I don't know.

Whatever the case, if anyone knows what this old-fashioned term is and would please tell me what it is here as an answer, I'd very much appreciate it.

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  • Yes, there is a very odd term with -wife at the end which I cannot remember at the moment as I only saw it once but I am not sure it means abortionist.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 18:11
  • What period are we talking about here - Victorian, or earlier? Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 18:51
  • Can you jog your memory regarding the period drama you saw? Vera Drake is a 2004 British period drama film... 10 Rillington Place is a 1971 British crime film... Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 3:07
  • @KateBunting - I honestly can't remember enough about the rest of it. I can remember that bit of the scene, but the setting was rather squalid, so it's not like I have a lot of fancy costumery to go on but just two ladies basically in somewhat unmemorable rags. I'm thinking, yes, maybe Victorian or Georgian. Definitely not 20th century or later and I don't feel like it was set back as far as the Middle Ages. More than that, I'm sorry, I just can't remember well enough. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 8:05
  • @TinfoilHat - I've tried. I've wracked my brain trying. It just won't jog, though. Or it hasn't so far. Still trying. Thanks. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 8:11

2 Answers 2

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You may be looking for the term angel maker. The term is not ending in -wife; however, midwives (and others) were performing abortions illegally in the history also.

There are two meanings of the word angel maker, both with dark histories:

1. (historical, euphemistic) An illicit abortionist.
2. (historical, euphemistic) A person who took in unwanted children and usually mistreated them.

Wiktionary

The term is used in other languages also. It is Engelmacher in German (literally angelmaker) , and Collins translates it as:

(euph inf) backstreet abortionist

The term angel maker appears to come from French and here is a relevant historical note:

In France, these women were known as faiseuses d’anges (angel makers). In fact, the term itself changed during the 19th century. Formerly, it also referred to wet nurses who deliberately allowed their charges to die. Later, it was used only for women who practised abortions.

True Inspiration for Fiction #4: Angel Makers | Vanessa Couchman -vanessacouchmanwriter.com

Update: I've also found the term angel-maker in Jonathon Green's book The Stories of Slang: Language at its most human where he confirms that it is a borrowing from French faiseur d'anges, and he provides other slang terms and euphemisms for an abortionist and abortion:

If the ice-tong doctor prefers to hide his gruesome kit, others of slang's abortionists are less squeamish. Not that any of the associated vocabulary lets you off the hook. Perhaps the least offensive is the angel-maker, borrowed from France's synonymous and equally euphemistic faiseur d'anges. Otherwise one has the lock-picker, the rabbit-snatcher and the pin artist. If the coat-hanger is mercifully absent, there are intimations in the grim collection around scrape: scrape job, scraping and scrape out. To procure an abortion is to crack an egg, to hoover, to bring it away and, in the Caribbean, to throw away belly. Cemetery, still in the West Indies, refers to a woman who has had (or is suspected of having had) an abortion. To make a woman one is the reverse of fall in two: to give birth, in this case the 'other' is no longer there. The seventeenth-century stifle the squeaker was baldly defined as to murder a child `and throw it into a House of Office (i.e. a privy)'.


Note: I've also found evidence that angel-wife is a term used but it has the sense "ideal housewife":

The asexual Victorian angel-wife and the Victorian prostitute were institutions created by this double thinking...

Mother Reader: Essential Literature on Motherhood edited by Moyra Davey

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – NVZ
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 6:59
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I believe you're looking for "cut-wife", from Penny Dreadful

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