A reader wonders about the words lady and woman:
I was attempting to explain, to my walking group, the difference between “woman” and “lady”. I gave examples, through parallel terms the equality between male and female, woman and man, lady and gentleman. I said, “We are all women, but not all of us are ladies. When asked if ‘lady’ was a ‘better’ woman, I was stuck because, I don’t feel that’s is the case, but I think our culture thinks so. Any help?
This question is one with all kinds of ramifications.
I belong to a generation for whom gendered words used to be fairly clear-cut:
woman: generic word for a female human being
man: generic word for a male human being
lady: a woman of refined behavior and speech
gentleman: a man of refined behavior and speech
According to these simple definitions, a lady is a woman, but not all women are ladies. Ditto with the words man and gentleman.
Since the gender revolution, some women are insulted to be called “ladies,” feeling that the word suggests inferiority, hypocrisy, or condescension. Children, on the other hand, seem to be taught to call all women ladies, and Hollywood celebrities habitually use the word “lady” to mean “girlfriend” or “wife.”
The questioner’s pairing of lady and gentleman makes sense to me, but I think the word gentleman has pretty much lost its meaning for most people. For example, policemen, lawyers, and newscasters often refer to men in criminal custody as “gentlemen.” I find this usage especially irritating.
I think of lady as a special word for a classy woman, one who dresses appropriately for different occasions and speaks and acts with unfailing courtesy to everyone she encounters. I wouldn’t say that a lady is “better” than a woman. I’d just say that certain things set a “lady” apart from your generic “woman.” To draw from the celebrity sphere, I might associate the word “lady” with Oprah or Meryl Streep, but probably not with Rosanne Barr or Britney Spears.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, lady and woman still had connotations of social class. A NY Times article dated 1887 tells how a “gentleman” knocked down a cabman because he’d insulted the man’s wife by referring to her as a “woman.” In many novels, servants are careful to distinguish between “ladies and gentlemen,” and “persons” of lower rank. As late as 1966 Agatha Christie describes this exchange between Hercule Poirot and his manservant George:
Poirot considered this reply. He remembered the slight pause that George had made before the phrase–young lady. George was a delicate social recorder. He had been uncertain of the visitor’s status but had given her the benefit of the doubt.
“You are of the opinion that she is a young lady rather than, let us say, a young person?”
“I think so, sir, though it is not always easy to tell nowadays.” George spoke with genuine regret. —Third Girl
I suppose that in our “nowadays,” any significant difference between the words lady and woman has disappeared for most speakers.