28 June 2010

Hello, Lady!

In one of my first posts, back in April of last year, i mentioned the word 'dreary' and how it's lost power and meaning throughout the centuries of use. That's now the only direction language flows. It also fills words with more depth, more meaning, more fullness as time wanes onward.

I came across the origin of the word 'lady.' It comes from the Old English (similar to the word 'dreary'). Originally it was spelled 'hlāēfdīge.' Don't ask me to pronounce it; i don't speak Old English. Through the Middle Ages, it transformed into 'lafdi' then 'ladi' to arrive at something close to our current 'lady'. However, the meaning was thoroughly different from what we hold today; 'hlāēfdīge' means 'loaf-kneader.'

The original lady was a job description, similar to butcher, baker, or candle-stick maker. (Maybe that last one went a bit too far.) Our current use, by contrast, is much more broad, and much more rich. We use the term 'lady' today to refer to a woman in a polite manner. We also use it as a title, referring to an individual's social status. We group it in phrases such as 'ladies and gentlemen'--an opening phrase of respect for both genders--and 'lady and the tramp'--a juxtaposition between two individuals of distinctly separate social standing. What once was considered a title of menial labor has become a dignified label of courtesy.

It has also kept a bit of a brusque nature. When used in lieu of a name--'Lady, please pass the salt'--it holds a more direct and impolite weight behind it. Yet even this is a filling out of hlāēfdīge. The word 'lady' projects more than the task of a simple loaf-kneader. It displays a certain vanity, a distinct femininity behind even the most abrupt usage, a femininity that extends beyond kitchen or housework.

Where 'dreary' acts as a cautionary tale of the life that can be drained from a word when used poorly, or overused, 'lady' is a standard to which we can aspire. Language is a sword. When used properly, it is the foil or sabre of fencing; designed for style and specific attack targets. Wielded carelessly, it becomes a machete, a utility that does the job, but tears down much in the process.

No comments:

Post a Comment