Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Nov 13 19:04:04 UTC 1999

At 4:56 PM -0500 11/12/99, Gregory {Greg} Downing wrote
(inter alia)
>This doesn't mean there's anything metaphysically offensive about all the
>terms that came to be negatively marked. Note for example that "lady" came
>to be seen as offensive as part of the same process, not because there is
>something offensive about the metaphor involved ("lady" is actually an
>aristocratic term if you trace it back) but, again, for sociolingusitic
>reasons. "Lady" was a term of address used for women whose name one didn't
>know by people without a college education -- cadrivers and the like (recall
>Archie Bunker, a fictional character in the early 70's). Since those who
>were interested in the emergent feminist perspective perceived that such
>folks were frequently on "the other side" in the culture wars, those
>people's terms for women came to be stigmatized in more educated circles.
>Thus the originally aristocratic "lady," which had been employed as a (by
>aspiration, at least) upscale term among less educated and affluent people
>in the pre-1970 period, came to be seen as repulsive and insulting,

That's not quite how I remember that discussion from the mid to late '70s.
Although Robin Lakoff, in her discussion in _Language and Woman's Place_,
did bring up some examples like "saleslady" that might be seen as involving
pink collar jobs, the real objection to using "lady" for "woman" was that
it was a 'pedestal word', used to desexualize women, and as such
functioning essentially as a euphemism.  Thus "lady" was placed in the same
bag as "Israelite" for 'Jew' and "Afro-American" and originally "Negro" for
'black', in each case providing support for the thesis (advanced by Lakoff
and others) that we only have ethnic euphemisms where we would also have
dysphemisms representing our 'true' feelings about the class referred to.
Essentially, we use "lady" because we're REALLY thinking...well, one of the
500 words insulting terms listed in large slang compendia.  If "lady" were
used exactly where "gentleman" was (as in the plural, on some bathroom
doors or in preambles to formal speeches), it would have been considered a
quaint relic, perhaps, but nothing to raise feminist hackles.  It was (and
is) the asymmetry--the use of "lady" and, for that matter, "girl" in
contexts where a man would simply be called a "man"--that prompted the
objections.  I'm not sure that Archie Bunker was really part of this debate.

>"woman" (interestingly, "wife person" if one traces it back) was seen as
>inoffensive because it was the most mainstream and unmarked word in the
>actual usage of that time.
Agreed on the sociology, but not on the etymology, or at least it's
misleadingly packaged.  "Woman" is only 'wife-person' if we remember that
"wife" here (wi:f, actually) was then the word for 'female' or 'woman', so
a better gloss for wi:f-man(n) would be 'female person', as wer-man(n) was
'male person'.  Only later did wi:f end up specialized to mean 'wife' (in
the same way that Ger. Frau or Fr. femme have specific meanings of 'wife'
alongside their general meanings of 'woman').  "Old wives' tales" and
"midwife" preserve the earlier meanings of "wife" = 'woman'.


More information about the Ads-l mailing list