Friday Feminist – Robin Lakoff

It might also be claimed that lady is no euphemism because it has exactly the same connotations as woman, is usable under the same semantic and contextual conditions. But a cursory inspection will show that this is not always the case. The decision to use one term rather than the other may considerably alter the sense of a sentence. The following are examples:

(a) A (woman / lady) that I know makes amazing things out of shoelaces an old boxes.
(b) A (woman / lady) I know works at Woolworth’s.
(c) A (woman / lady) I know is a dean at Berkeley.

(These facts are true for some speakers of English. For others, lady has taken over the function of woman to such an extent that lady can be used in all these sentences.)

In my speech, the use of lady in (c) imparts a frivolous, on nonserious tone to the sentence: the matter under discussion is one of not too great moment. In this dialect, then, lady seems to be the more colloquial word: it is less apt to be used in writing, or in discussion serious matters. Similarly in (a), using lady would suggest that the speaker considered the ‘amazing things’ not to be serious art, but merely a hobby or an aberration. If woman is used, she might be a serious (pop art) sculptor.

Related to this is the use of lady in job terminology. For at least some speakers, the more demeaning the job, the more the person holding it (if female, of course) is likely to be described as a lady. Thus, cleaning lady is at least as common as cleaning woman, saleslady as saleswoman. But one says, normally, woman doctor. To say lady doctor is to be very condescending: it constitutes an insult. For men, there is no such dichotomy. Garbage man or salesman is the only possibility, never garbage gentleman. And of course, since in the professions the male is unmarked, we never have man (male) doctor.

Numerous other examples can be given, all tending to prove the same point: that if in a particular sentence, both woman and lady might be used, the use of the latter tends to trivialize the subject matter under discussion, often subtly ridiculing the woman involved.

Robin Lakoff, “Language and Woman’s Place”, Language in Society, 1973 (2:1), pp. 45 – 80.


5 responses to “Friday Feminist – Robin Lakoff

  1. The style at the first paper I worked for (and most media) was to use woman.

    The editor told me that was because you always knew if she was a woman, you couldn’t always tell if she was a lady.

    The value judgements in that confirm what you’ve written.

  2. I really hate lady now; I would use woman in almost all circumstances. An exception that I can think of is a much older woman, who might think herself insulted if called ‘woman’ I’ll call her a lady.

  3. I agree that this is a matter of dialect and context, but I think the author is not looking deeply enough for ways that language allows men to be insulted 🙂

    With “lady” its in its old, complimentary sense it is correct that the cognate might be to the still reasonably well preserved meaning of “gentleman”.

    But I think the newer, somewhat belittling, sense of the word “lady” has a male counterpart in the modern sense of “dude”.

    The word “dude” makes me think of young adult males who are still in their “dudebro” phase (which they are proud of, but which makes me feel sorry for them). Also, “dude” has older connotations where urban males would be insulted by proud rural males for having no practical skills and wearing clothes optimized to display wealth rather than engage in physical labor. (In working class cultures the worst thing one can be called is frequently “lazy” and the clothing of dudes was, in some deep senses, explicitly designed to display the lack of need to do physical labor and hence to “display laziness” that could be gotten away with.)

    It would be idiomatic (at least in the dialects I’m familiar with) to call someone a “salesdude”, whereas it would be both less likely and less insulting to call someone a “saleslady” because with “saleslady” there could actually be an honest claim to be using it in the older, more complimentary, sense.

    For reference, I grew up in northern California and have lived in southern California for about 7 years. My reactions to the example sentences didn’t fully line up with those offered… my first guess about those sentences was that if the word “lady” was used in (a) and (b) then the speaker was quite likely to be a child, and that using woman in (c) was a place where people from particularly formal cultural contexts might think it was too disrespectful of the female who happened to be a dean (and therefore was presumably older, late in well-managed career arc, with major social and economic capital).

    Partly this is because I almost never hear the word “lady” used at all, except ironically or by people who are culturally distant from me.

    It strikes me as likely that growing class differences in the US might be playing a part here?

    Maybe the lower classes in the US have retained older senses of the word “lady” while the upper classes (say, those having been more exposed to college and theoretical feminism?) tend to insist on “woman” (nothing more and nothing less) as a word of respect. After enough time, the variations in usage would gain obvious implications of one’s place in society which could loop back around and make “lady” sound insulting to someone who thought that physical labor was demeaning and who had substantial influence over elite culture.

    Right now, the use of “lady” might be ready to function as a shibboleth for class, but eventually the ruling class interpretation would be likely to become canonical and be reified in polite conversation as a rule of etiquette that all people are “supposed to follow” if they “have manners”. It sounds kind of like a stretch to me, but this theory doesn’t seem *entirely* implausible as an explanation of what’s beginning to happen here. Maybe there is also an element of east coast “yankee/southern” dynamics as well?

  4. Ah, I see now, that these words were written before I was born. That changes things substantially… it makes it more likely that this sort of theorizing is where my cultural contexts comes from rather being a modern attempt to shape present-day culture.

    My attitude should probably be more along the lines of gratitude-toward-elders than critique-of-contemporaries 🙂

  5. This is one of the things I’ve been enjoying about finding the extracts for this Friday Feminist series, Jane. Where we have come from is fascinating, and I think, easily forgotten. I’m trying to keep an index of writers and theorists and feminists and womanists I have quoted, in date order, but I’m a bit behind with it at present. I’m hoping that once it’s up to date (hah!), it should be quite an interesting resource for people (if one that’s skewed towards my personal interests).

    Many thanks for your comments.