Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: lady.

lady. This word has become increasingly problematic. Though hardly anyone would object to it in the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” or on a restroom sign, most other uses of the term might invite disapproval — depending on the readers’ or listeners’ views about sexism. It isn’t a skunked term, but it’s gradually becoming something like one. And this process has been occurring since at least the mid-20th century: “I don’t know any word that has been so beaten down in modern usage as ‘lady.'” Edward N. Teall, Putting Words to Work 286 (1940). The linguist Cecily Raysor Hancock of Chicago observed in 1963 that Americans are divisible into three groups when it comes to using “lady”: (1) those who use “lady” in preference to “woman” when referring to female adults of any social class (a group that has steadily dwindled); (2) those who generally use “woman” in preference to “lady,” but who use “lady” in reference to social inferiors; and (3) those who use “woman” uniformly regardless of social class or familiarity, except in a few set formulas such as “ladies and gentlemen.” See “Lady and Woman,” 38 Am. Speech 234-35 (1963). Hancock rightly notes that “the use of ‘lady’ at present apparently gives more sociological information about its user than about the person described,” adding: “‘woman’ is probably the safer choice of the two.” Ibid. at 235. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “‘Lady’ carries with it overtones recalling the age of chivalry: the exalted stature of the person so referred to, her existence above the common sphere. This makes the term seem polite at first, but we must also remember that these implications are perilous: they suggest that a ‘lady’ is helpless, and cannot do things for herself. In this respect the use of a word like ‘lady’ is parallel to the act of opening doors for women — or ladies. At first blush it is flattering: the object of the flattery feels honored, cherished, and so forth; but by the same token, she is also considered helpless and not in control of her own destiny.” Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman’s Place 25 (1975). ====================
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