Over time (And we’re trying to work out if this is inevitable), we as humans regularly change the world around us, and this includes our words. Often we completely convert a word into something new and unrelated. Sometimes, the journey is convoluted, and branching, and the meanings seem disconnected but in fact are very linked (as NITL has shown). And every once in a while, there are words that have one main meaning… but the judgement that goes with the meaning is both pretty varied, and often hard to guess when it comes out of someone’s mouth…
Words like Lady as an example.
a polite or formal way of referring to a woman.
any woman / female
a woman of good social position.
a woman at the head of a household.
We know that Gendered modifiers like female, woman, and lady are a thorny issue in English language:
They start to get a bit more socially awkward very quickly –
The Traditional definitions of:
a man's wife.
a female lover or girlfriend.
a woman to whom a man, especially a knight, is chivalrously devoted.
Seem a bit misogynistic- in fact it’s origin was loaf kneader (or bread maker).
And when often used as an adjective descriptor, the connotations start to seem a bit derogratory: pretty but not really “good”
Lady of the night – prostitute
Sometimes Offensive. being a weak female:
In the British vernacular, they actually used to call a female public toilet a lady – it’s unlikely the male version was titled gentleman.
When you start to look at the Synonyms –
Woman, Female, Girl, Queen, Dame, Mistress, Wife
the meaning of lady stays mostly the same…female - but the connotations seem to reflect more on social priorities and narratives at the time.
It’s almost like the word lady doesn’t exist on it’s own – it is purely the meaning bestowed upon it.
A great example is how a lady should physically present:
In modern fashion, in jeans, a tshirt and sneakers- If we walk with Grace and smile and am kind (all characteristics of a good “lady), could you call me a lady?
See, a traditional lady was fashion conscious as only the affluent could at the time. By modern standards, my $500 sneakers, jeans and t-shirt definitely tick the fashion box.
But for the generation X-ers and earlier, a girl getting dirty and running around in jeans and T-shirt’s all day was not ladylike – they were a tomboy, unruly or uneducated.
So in this case, the same outfit which would not have been seen on a fashion conscious lady 30 years ago, defines her now.
Why does this matter?
Because it’s hard to know the rules, and at a time when offense and lack of understanding are paramount to being a bad person, is it fair to judge someone for calling you a lady, if they think it’s a compliment, just because you don’t agree?
So many words have evolved in actual definition/meaning… and yes, over time, people need to learn when they are only used in an offensive manner- racial and sexual slurs are examples of this.
But these words in between- like lady… feel like landmines that nobody has a map for.
As our world becomes larger and more diverse, the expectation that everyone has the same insights or meanings or intentions, when we are also meant to be accepting cultural and gender diversity and celebrate individualism seems both impossible and maybe even counter to the very point of accepting diversity.
We DO think and feel differently, all the time…
So when someone “Ladies” us, if we jump into a diatribe about misogyny and my
Feminist rights… am I being accepting of diversity? Or just asking them to accept my perspective?
The truth is, there is no right answer. Which is what makes this all so hard.
Often, the word alone is actually not the point –
It’s the underlying behaviour and understanding that is being requested to change
-an underlying social construct/ belief/ value/ knowledge that needs to evolve – and that means that we have to decide if it’s worth the effort?
So what do we do with that?
I guess it’s about working out
What the word means to you to cause your reaction?
What the intention of the word was from the speaker?
How can the conversation acknowledge the intention AND then also express the emotional response?
Can both parties recognise that they are both allowed to have a different meaning?
What is the decision about how to use that word in future that respects the needs of both parties?
Who does it affect more?
How much do you lose?
How will you respond when the behaviour is repeated?
What if they can’t give you what you need?
What makes this even more complex – is that the level by which people will be impacted by the use of these kinds of words also changes? Each person’s understanding, their level of care and reaction, how loudly they respond, whether they can be bothered doing anything differently, why they can or can’t change, and how comfortable they are with mistakes add an extra 30 sliders to the equaliser that is controlling how we hear “our conversations” – at the Silent Disco that is life, and we’re all doing it with the best noise cancelling headphones on.
Maybe the best thing we can do is just keep dancing.