Saturday, February 11, 2012

Return of the Ladies

Return of the Ladies

Last week’s post sparked a comment regarding the etymology of the word lady. If lady originally referred to the gal who made the bread, when and how did lady get a promotion to become the gal who watched the servant bake the bread while nibbling bonbons?

In terms of written English, I can’t find evidence of lady referring to a woman who was likely to get her hands mussed in such things as dough. In the year 1000, the word was used to mean both a mistress in charge of servants or slaves & a woman who rules over subjects, to whom feudal homage is due. However, lady was constructed of parts that meant one who kneads bread. Interestingly, lord literally translates to he who guards the loaves. These two etymologies together suggest that bread may have metaphorically represented home (being the staff of life & all).

The word lady takes up nearly three pages of the print version of The Oxford English Dictionary, offering eighteen shades of meaning for the noun & two for the verb (to make a lady of & to render lady-like or feminine). Some notable first sightings of various meanings of lady include:

900 – Lady in reference to the Virgin Mary
1205 – lady recognized as a more courteous term than woman
1206 – lady as a synonym for wife or consort (though “yeah, she’s my old lady,” didn’t kick in until the late 60s)
1489lady as the queen in chess
1611lady as a kind of butterfly (later to become the painted lady)
1704 – lady as the calcerous structure in the stomach of a lobster (I don’t make this stuff up)

& the list goes on.

Trusty followers, what thoughts have you regarding lady, its checkered history & various permutations?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, The Chicago Tribune & the OED.


  1. I love it that originally, Lord and Lady meant "Mr. and Mrs. Baker" --or the Bread Barons, maybe? I do indeed remember being taught that sort-of-yucky part of the lobster is called the "lady". Now I wonder where that came from...

  2. Just wanted to drop a line and say that your blog posts are fascinating! Keep writing. :)

  3. Ahoy Ellen & Anne,
    Thanks so much for dropping in. Anne, as a guy who loves to bake, & eats mostly carbos, I'm 100% behind the home-is-bread idea. Maybe I should start a movement...