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From rags to riches, or the multifaceted progress of lady

Every English dictionary with even minimal information on word origins, will tell us that lord and lady are so-called disguised compounds. Unlike skyline or doomsday (to give two random examples), lord and lady do not seem to consist of two parts. Yet a look at their oldest forms—namely, hlāf-weard and hlæf-dīge—dispels all doubts about their original status (the hyphens above are given only for convenience). In the course of time, the first “halves” in those words yielded Modern English “loaf.” Originally, they meant “bread.” The components –dīge and –weard stood for “kneader” and “ward” respectively.

Today, –dīge means nothing to us. It is related not to the verb dig but to the noun dough. However, –dige has a much closer descendant in Modern English, namely, dey. At present, this word is regional. It was borrowed from Old Norse into Middle English and means “maidservant.” Its cognates occur everywhere in Modern Scandinavian, especially often in compounds. The story certainly began with a kneader, because Icelandic deig and German Teig still mean “dough.” Even the fourth-century Gothic, the oldest Germanic language known to us, had the same word.

Though the way from a “bread-kneader” (that is, “a servant”?) to “lady, mistress” looks odd, the other suggestions are even worse. The original OED admitted the implausibility of the proposed etymology, Skeat added perhaps to it, the second edition of the Century Dictionary did the same, and the attempts by early amateurs to explain lady as “bread-dispenser” cannot even be considered. For amusement’s sake, I may note that for some time, the tremendously popular Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-1922) coexisted with Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832). In both, I ran across a letter, published in 1772 and 1817, respectively. The texts are almost identical, and I suspect that the second one was a plagiarized version of the first. Here is the relevant passage from the earlier letter: “You must know, then, that heretofore it was the fashion for those families whom God had blessed with affluence, to live constantly at the mansion-houses in the country, and that once a week, or oftener, the lady of the manor distributed to her poor neighbours, with her own hands, a certain quantity of bread, and she was called by them the Leff-day, i.e. in Saxon, bread-giver.” This is pure fiction.

The Lady of the Lake.
Image by H.J. Ford, Wikimedia Commons via Picryl.

In 1992, Rainer Schulze, a German researcher, examined the entry lady in the OED and presented the word’s story in nineteen steps, which I’ll reproduce below in an abridged form (all my examples will also be borrowed from his paper). The main steps are as follows: someone who kneads bread; the female head of the household (a mistress in relation to servants or slaves); Virgin Mary (a most important leap), and Lady as the designation of the Virgin (Our Lady, finds its counterparts in Latin Domina Nostra, French Notre Dame, and elsewhere); a woman who rules over subjects; a woman of superior position in society; a woman who is the object of chivalrous devotion; a woman, loosely defined but of usually not very elevated standard of social position.

To be sure, side by side with lady, the word wife continued to exist, but it is worth noting how rich the history of lady turned out to be in comparison to the history of wife. Today, the old meaning of wife “woman” can still be discerned in fishwife and old wives’ tales. “The mistress of a household” is discernible in goodwife and housewife. By contrast, German Weib still means only “woman.” The interplay between Weib and Frau is also most interesting but has no direct bearing on today’s story, and I’ll let it be. Synonyms always struggle. Wife has been allowed to occupy one main niche (“spouse”), while lady moved in many directions.

Incidentally, Old English, like all the other Germanic languages, had a third word, not to be forgotten in this context. In Gothic, that word sounded as quino, and in Old English, as cwene. It still exists, though sadly “demoted” and little remembered: quean means “hussy; prostitute.” Side by side, but with a different (long) vowel, Old English cwēn “queen” existed. It probably first designated any woman and only later narrowed its meaning to “the wife of a king.” Quean and queen have always been related (in technical terms, their vowels represent two different grades of ablaut) and always designated “some kind of woman.” But the meaning of one synonym was “degraded,” and the meaning of the other “ameliorated.” Both are cognates of the Greek noun we recognize in gynecology.

A knight and his lady.
Image by Berendey_Ivanov / Andrey_Kobysnyn via Pexels.

It is amazing how often the most innocent words for “woman” fall victim to deterioration. For instance, the little-remembered huzzy is a contraction of housewife, that is, hūs-wīf, and whore is related to Latin carus “dear.” Against this background, the advancement of “bread-kneader” to “lady” is a most heartening event, assuming that lady did mean “bread-kneader.” In the quartet wife, queen, quean, and lady, only lady never meant “woman” in the past, but its time soon came.

Lord has hardly changed it semantics over the centuries, while lady kept developing ever new connotations. Here is an early example (I retain the spelling of the original): “For Ladies and women to weepe [that is, weep] and shed tears at euery little greefe [grief], it is nothing vncomely, but rather a signe of much good nature and meekness of minde [sic]” (1589). Ladies here are obviously women of high social standing. Soon, Lady Beauty, Lady Largess, Lady Pleasure, and even Lady Law and Lady Money appeared! At the same time, lady emerged as a synonym of “lover, mistress,” and in the eighteenth century, lady-love made its entry.

The sense of lady as an intensification of the honorary title arouses no surprise. When women began to compete with men for all kinds of historically “male” positions, all kinds of coinages became necessary. Chairman became Chair, firemen yielded to firefighters, waitresses to servers, and so forth. Adding Lady to Mayoress looked like a clever combination in 1967. At the same time, lady became a polite (genteel?) synonym for woman (three young ladies, and the like). We may remember that in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Professor Higgins thrust a piece of chocolate into Eliza’s mouth, and she swallowed it, because it would have been not “lady-like” to spit it out. Yet the word’s old connotations never disappeared.

This is a ladybug with its surprising name.
Image by Marek Piwnicki via Pexels.

As a postscript, something should be said about ladybug. Numerous sources inform us that according to some legend, afflicted farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary to save their fields from the pest that endangered them. Allegedly, She sent thousands of ladybugs to the fields, and those ate up the dangerous insects. The grateful farmers called the insect after Her. No one gives references to the source of the legend, which, I believe, should be ascribed to folk etymology. Considering the ladybug’s appearance, the true reference may perhaps be to the Virgin’s seven sorrows or to the multicolored dress in which She is represented in late medieval paintings. The word ladybug and its likes have spread all over Europe, but the occurrences do not antedate the eighteenth century.

Finally, I would like to thank our reader for the comment on fink in the previous post and wish everybody affluence with or without a country mansion.

Featured image by Olia Danilevich via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Quiz, before it meant an exam, referred to an odd-looking person. Such a person was often called a “queer phiz,” phiz being short for physiognomy. Apparently, though the Oxford English Dictionary has “of unknown origin.” quiz was a compound or blend of queer and phiz, qu plus iz, quiz.

  2. Nigel Middlemiss

    it is much more fruitful and interesting, as in this week’s post, Lord and Lady, to trace the rich, varied complex history of a well-known etymology(ies), than, as often previously, of an obscure bit of (usually US) slang, or of a pretty well unknowable etymology such as that of do or but or if.

  3. Gavin Wraith

    What you call ‘ladybug’ has to me (in the UK) always been ‘ladybird’. I wonder if it was ever spelled, pleonastically, as ‘ladyburd’? In my youth ‘burd’ was the standard word used by boys for ‘girl’. A sporty looking car, for example, was a ‘burd-puller’. Maybe the usage still survives.

  4. Peter Warne

    I think one key to the etymology of lady may well lie in Switzerland. The uppermost section of society is referred to in Swiss-German towns, where this sort of thing still seems to matter, as Teig, more accurately ‘Daig’, depending on dialect. Which means, dough, of course. I am sure that neither Professor Higgins nor Eliza Doolittle would have any difficulty in discerning which part of society is the upper crust. Not such a great leap, even if in modern German Teig today only means dough and not the finished article.
    (see Wikipedia: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daig)

    And by the way, the British military may still refer to a small package of sewing necessities that you might today find in your hotel room as a ‘hussif’. That was certainly what they called their uniform repair kit in my father’s day, and he certainly knew its derivation from housewife.

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