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Using the word "lady" for a woman, but not "gentleman"; for a man

(62 Posts)
Blackcountryman12 Sat 08-Feb-20 21:52:49

I have always been interested in gender issues and feminism and one area I have studied is gender and language. As a male feminist, something I notice is the way people think the word "woman" sounds rude in some contexts, but "man" doesn't.

Because feminism is about equality between women and men, I often cringe when I hear "lady" in situations when "gentleman" isn't used. I'm not saying "gentleman" is never used, but when it is, it is only in certain contexts and often in its true sense ie. "he's a real gentleman". I have never liked this kind of unequal use.

I have heard "lady" and "gentleman" both used in polite contexts and I don't dislike that, but I have often also heard "lady" being used in ordinary conversation, when men are just "man", or "bloke"/chap" and increasingly "guy", which is perhaps the most commonly used Americanism that has come into British English.

I think the way "lady" has replaced "woman" in many situations is a good example of semantic derogation. My least favourite uses are where "lady" is used loosely as a substitute for woman, it can sound way too polite and twee in these contexts, as well as a little odd (you wouldn't call a man a gentleman), and I hate when a girl or young woman is condescendingly addressed as "young lady", I mean a boy or young man would just be called "young man" and not "young gentleman". What is is that people find rude about "woman"? Going back 100 years or more, people actually said "young woman", if you read texts from around that time.

Fenlandmountainrescue Sat 08-Feb-20 21:59:23

I say gentleman. It amuses me and I feel archaic. Plus, it puts an expectation on the man’s behaviour.

lydiamajora Sat 08-Feb-20 22:44:23

I often refer to service workers as sir or madam. "Sir" generally doesn't get a second thought, but "Madam" certainly seems to haha (though not in a bad way). Then again, personally I also refer to groups of men and women as gentlemen and ladies respectively :P Can't speak for people who aren't me, but I agree that "ladies" is used more often than "gentlemen" in a general setting. Nothing useful to add beyond that I'm afraid.

TheGreatWave Sat 08-Feb-20 22:53:18

I find woman quite harsh, maybe it is just my accent, but "mind the woman" sounds ruder than "mind the lady"

(For context ds (ASD) has no spatial awareness so just walks into people)

lydiamajora Sat 08-Feb-20 22:56:33

I don't really ever say "Mind the man." However, I do say, "Move over, there's a wo/man trying to get around you (to husband)." So not sure if there's a disparity in my own speech.

TheBewildernessisWeetabix Sat 08-Feb-20 23:05:16

Lady and gentleman are class distinctions that people are still trying to work around in modern language usage.

MrsWednesdayteatime Sat 08-Feb-20 23:11:33

I think I probably use 'gent' quiet a lot, I work in shops and have to hand customers over to actual store staff often, "hey Kate, could you help this gent" or "this gentleman is looking for the cookery books" wouldn't be unusual things to say. I think I probably use lady, gentleman & customer equally, saying man or woman sounds too harsh.

Housiemousie Sat 08-Feb-20 23:15:23

It is much harder to be a gentleman than a lady. I can be a lady easily enough, I don't know if my beloved husband has ever qualified as a gentleman, though he may have had his moments, never enough to qualify for the term!

In all honesty though: gentleman conjures up cane and top hat while lady is a woman who has good morals and manners.

Fenlandmountainrescue Sun 09-Feb-20 00:33:37

I always thought gentleman means respectable and nice things like holding the door. I realised it doesn't get used so much now, but I preferred the way men behaved when it was in common parlance.

Goosefoot Sun 09-Feb-20 02:45:07

I don't think you can make the kinds of assumptions you want to when comparing the words in use. There are a lot of reasons one word may be dropped or replaced, but another won't. Sometimes for example there are several groups of words that may have similar meanings, and some of them are dropped, but not necessarily the ones that match each other in the most exact way. There can also be really significant regional and class differences in connotations and usage.

The type of analysis that wants to look at language as if its straightforward and clear cut and differences are always indicating some kind of preference or denigration of one party or group, is rather naive, and I'd like to be able to say it's passe.

As far as lady and gentlemen go, I could make several guesses as to why that might be:
possibly because in days when we expected a certain amount of public chivalry towards women, there was something of a tendency in polite society to call women "ladies" even if in fact, they weren't, and that usage has stuck. Whereas the term gentlemen was more often used in its technical sense.
Or the equivalent in popular use is "gents" and that has fallen out of favour because some people seem to associate it with toilets (that would not have occurred to me except it was brought up in the other thread.)

stellabelle Sun 09-Feb-20 02:54:29

I'm a nurse - at my workplace we tend to use lady and gentleman to describe the patients when talking to each other and to them. "The gent / gentleman in Bay 1 needs some analgesia" would be used, rather than man. Or " Mary, you'll be getting a new roommate. The new lady will be Susan" rather than woman.

I've always liked semantics - in this case I see the terms lady and gentleman as being on a higher level, more polite than the blunter man / woman.

Goosefoot Sun 09-Feb-20 03:38:40

In those examples it would almost sound odd if you switched in man and woman. Like you were being extra emphatic or something.

FrogsFrogs Sun 09-Feb-20 13:13:43

IME around here you'd hear eg 'let the man past' and 'let the lady past'. Agree with PP that it's because too many people woman sounds somehow rude. Which is not great, is it. I wonder if it's because when men (and women too) criticise women they often use the word woman as part of the insult eg 'stupid woman' whereas with a man you'd say 'stupid sod' or something, you don't often hear man used as part of it.

Words for women, our body parts are so much more value laden than men. Like how there's no equivalent to willy for girls, no nice friendly commonly used word. Instead a range that some people find ok and others obscene, or things like flower, foof etc

Language around us is trickier because of the way we're talked about, maybe.

Blackcountryman12 Sun 09-Feb-20 13:19:44

You have made some good points, Stellabelle. I would agree that "lady" and "gentleman" sound more polite than "man" and "woman". I think context is important. I think as well, many people were brought up to believe that "woman" sounded "rude" when "man" did not necessarily.

I see what you mean as well, Goosefoot, with how there was a tendency to call women "ladies" because of chivalry, when "gentleman" as you said was used more in its technical sense.

I also think "lady" is used more loosely in the United States and it can be used in an insulting way there, like "hey lady, look where you're going". I did find when I was in Massachusetts about 7 years ago many people were very polite, calling me "sir" and "this gentleman".

Livpool Sun 09-Feb-20 13:45:18

My DS says lady and gentleman. I just think woman and man sounds rude - not sure why though!

He is 4 and does sound like a little old man ha

Babdoc Sun 09-Feb-20 13:54:12

Originally it was a class distinction. The upper classes were “gentlefolk”, ie ladies and gentlemen, and the working class were “simple folk” ie men and women.
It persisted right up to WW2. My parents were furious when poster invitations to a dance on their RAF base were worded: To officers and their ladies, sergeants and their wives, other ranks and their women”.
In addition to the class distinction, there is of course sexism, so “woman” is still seen as doubly derogatory to many people. Upgrading it to “lady” is, my opinion, a polite attempt to compensate.

RedskyAtnight Sun 09-Feb-20 13:54:34

Interestingly we were out for a meal last night and at one point the waiter referred to DD (who is 14) as "young woman". He obviously thought it sounded odd because he then changed it to "young lady" which (as per OP) he obviously thought sounded wrong too, because he then tried "young girl" which he was equally unhappy with.

It was interesting to hear because I did think "what is the correct way to refer to her?" and I'm not sure I know the answer.

"Guy" is an interesting word. I'm finding "guys" increasingly just means group of people (even if an all female group) but I've never heard a lone female being referred to as a guy.

Mockersisrightasusual Mon 10-Feb-20 10:03:09

Teaching is interesting in that it's Sir and Miss, not Sir and Madam.

This is because a schoolmaster was a qualified professional with a degree, and a schoolmistress was an unqualified childminder.

"Sir" was how a well brought-up young gentleman addressed his father, and schoolmasters were in loco parentis.

The schoolmistress was miss because it was inconceivable that she would be married with a home, family and husband to attend to and be able to hold down a job.

ErrolTheDragon Mon 10-Feb-20 10:13:26

* The schoolmistress was miss because it was inconceivable that she would be married with a home, family and husband to attend to and be able to hold down a job.*

More than that, in the past women could automatically lose their jobs on marriage.

My grandmother was a teacher pre WWI. Because of the shortage of male teachers due to them joining up, when she asked if she could continue after she married - her husband being away in the army anyway - her school board assented. However, they were surprised to find that she still expected to be paid for this privilege as she now had a man to keep her!

ErrolTheDragon Mon 10-Feb-20 10:18:48

* This is because a schoolmaster was a qualified professional with a degree, and a schoolmistress was an unqualified childminder.*

Actually, while the schoolmaster would have a degree, he would probably not have any professional qualification in teaching, whereas the school mistress ( by the early 20th c) would have likely have done a teacher training qualification.

Mockersisrightasusual Mon 10-Feb-20 10:25:16

And equal pay only arrived in 1974 courtesy of Shirley Williams. The Union of Women Teachers opposed this move, and only merged with the NAS when the law prohibited single-sex trade unions in 1976.

Blackcountryman12 Mon 10-Feb-20 10:40:08

This is an interesting one, with how some people feel they have to say "young lady" instead of "young woman" when a boy or young man would just be "young man".

I have never been fond of "guy/guys", I just find it too American and a too informal, especially in a professional setting. I would refer to a man in conversation as "man" or "bloke" myself, or sometimes "chap"

deydododatdodontdeydo Mon 10-Feb-20 10:41:52

Lady can be a bit of a taboo word on this forum. I've seen quite a lot of posts by women furious that they have been referred to as lady e.g. a parent saying to their child "give the money to the lady".
I don't think woman sounds rude per se, but lady does fit better in certain sentences.

Blackcountryman12 Mon 10-Feb-20 10:43:07

Sorry, I meant to put RedskyAtnight's name in my last post, but I couldn't see how to directly quote the message

ErrolTheDragon Mon 10-Feb-20 10:56:22

To quote something, just c&p with an asterisk either side - MN uses simple markup (paired hyphens for strikethrough, caret for italics, asterisk for bold) - which is easy enough when you get used to it but sometimes mangles a post which uses a dashes as punctuation or features high A level grades.grin

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