Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Our running club is organising a race for the summer and part of that involved developing a flyer to invite runners to participate.  We submitted the drafted document to the relevant authority and were told we needed to replace the term 'lady' with 'woman'.  To my surprise, it was one of the younger committee members, a 30-something, who mildly objected, saying 'lady' sounded more polite.

It would appear that one should chose one's words carefully over here.  I remember one of the sewing ladies (see?) being quite huffy because her doctor had written a letter that referred to her as a 'woman'.  I associate the term 'lady' with my Mom, who was one, along with the rules she listed for suitable behaviour.  The sorority she insisted I join added a few more rules that I took home and had the fun of discussing, eg it's permissible to smoke (this was 1972) but a lady doesn't walk across the room holding a cigarette and of course one doesn't ever hold it in one's mouth and speak.  Obvious, when you think about it, really. 

Early on at the bookbinding group at the tea break, the instructor was laughing with others at a story and commented, possibly as a way of including me in the conversation, that I should be warned I might hear the odd swear word, though they tried to keep it down as ladies were present.  I smiled and said that was OK, I'd pretend I didn't know what the words meant.  The librarian, who was training up in bookbinding and who expresses her personal style by wearing stuffed animals at the end of her pigtail and striped satin trousers tucked into buccaneer boots, sniffed and said, "A lady wouldn't need to pretend."  That was me put into my place; being a new kid on the block, I just agreed with her.  She's not that bad, really, once you get to talking with her.

So, being the type of person who likes to read encyclopedias and dictionaries, I looked up the words, lady and woman in my Dad's etymological dictionary (aren't you excited?).

Lady.  See loaf, para 4.  Loaf, plural loaves; lord (noun, hence verb), whence lordly, compare lordship; laird, whence lairdly; lady (noun, hence adjective), whence ladylike; lady bird; Lammas, whence Lammastide (compare tide, originally season, time).  [NB:  There's a post for 1 August...or not.  Didn't you always dream of writing a post using the word 'whence'?]  
Paragraph 4 doesn't really stand alone, though.  

Paragraph 1 talks about loaf, as in bread in general, from Middle English lof or laf, which came from Old English hlāf.  It also mentions the Latin libum, a sacrificial cake, though there are other root words for a sacrificial cake.

Moving on to para 2, we come to the o.o.o. (of obscure origin), loaf, to idle, whence loafer, might come from the generic notion of 'bread the staff of life' and the particular notion of 'a loaf of bread, a flask of wine, and though beside me in the wilderness - and wilderness was paradise enow'.  [Recognise our old friends?]  More probably, however, EW (?another etymologist?) is right in deriving this original American world from German dialect lofen, German laufen, to run, as in Landlaufer, landloper, vagabond.  (So we aren't a bunch of runners, we're a bunch of loafers...or vagabonds.  Right).

Paragraph 3 says that the Old English hlāf occurs in three compounds important to English, the first being hlāfmaesse, loaf Mass - the feast of the First Fruits - August 1: whence Lammas.

Para 4 (finally!):  The second is hlāfdige, loaf-kneader, compare (for the 2nd element) DIARY [which comes from a Middle English word, deie or daie, meaning a maid; or from Old English daege, kneader of Old English dah (see dough - but we won't; back to loaf -] Middle English lafdi, later lavede, latest ladi, English: lady.  A ladybird is a Lady bird, a 'bird' of Our Lady - an example of religous folklore.

I wish I could say, hand on heart, I followed all that.  I think it says 'lady' comes from words for bread produced by a diary maid for the purposes of a religious feast, but I could be wrong.  

Just in case you are interested, the third important compound is hlāfweard, loaf-ward or -guardian, soon contracted to hlāford; Middle English laverd,or loverd, latest lord, English lord.  Old English has the derivative hlāfordscipe, whence English lordship, originally the state or rank of a lord.  So all those nobles just started out as bread-minders?

Personally, I found woman to be a far more interesting word; but - you'll be pleased to know - that's a different post.


Jg. for FatScribe said...

wow. very interesting. you know CS Lewis has this wonderful book on word origins, that i believe you'll appreciate, fine lady.

agree with you that woman does sound more interesting to my wanton yank ears. look forward to the next post on that!

-- Fats

Rick Stone said...

Ladybird--I always thought that was a former U.S. Presidents wife.

The English Organizer said...

Goodness, had not really thought about Lady vs Woman before. I suppose, in matters of physical endeavour, Woman does sound a bit better, but I just checked out the Wimbledon site and they are still firmly talking about the Ladies' event :)