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This question is inspired by the wonderfully-named subreddit r/IDontWorkHereLady.

When a proficient English speaker addresses someone as "lady" (as opposed to "ma'am"), it seems to often be used as a faux-polite way of expressing displeasure at someone's behavior. For example, a statement like "Lady, I think you need to stand in line over there" could suggest, "I'm upset that you were inconsiderate enough to cut in line".

  1. I find it interesting that while the word "lady" by itself has a respectful connotation, it has gained the opposite connotation when used as an address. Does this kind of paradoxical semantic shift have a name? Is it a known linguistic phenomenon?

  2. I'm also curious about the etymology of this usage. When did this shift in meaning come about, and what might have caused it?

    I tried searching Google Ngram Viewer for "Look lady" and "Listen lady", both capitalized so as to occur at the start of a sentence, with the hope that these ngrams would reflect the usage of "lady" in a derogatory/dismissive sense.

    Google Ngram Viewer graph

    It seems to have come into usage around 1950, and really took off in the late 1990s. I do wonder whether this simply reflects a change in the composition of Google's dataset (that is, an increase in informal speech in fiction writing), or whether real-world usage actually changed.

    Sampling usage on Google Books from different time periods, it seems that the meaning shifts subtly from informal neutral to derogatory:

    Usage from 1940:

    As we stood there, one of the newspapermen sauntered over and looked mournfully at the old lady. "Look, lady," he began, "I make only eighteen dollars a week. I'm only twenty-six. and I've got to support a wife and two kids.

    Usage from 1955:

    "This can't be it!" Cherry said.

    The taxi driver turned around. "Look, lady. You give me an address, did'n' ya? I ain't responsible for this here crazy Greenwich Village."

    Cherry alighted. She peered around, delighted and astonished, at the narrow crooked street and the ancient, little brick houses.

    "Seventy-five cents, lady."

    "Oh! Here you are." She paid him, then reached the cab for her suitcase.

    The taxi driver looked skeptically at the ten-cent tip she had given him. Then he studied Cherry, fresh-faced and trim, in her red suit and tiny black hat perched on her black curls.

    "Look, lady. You ain't the Village type. You shoulda stood in Brooklyn. Like me."

    Usage from 1970:

    She replied, "Dr. Martin Luther King can follow Jesus's teachings, why can't you be as strong in faith as he is? Killing never solved any problems."

    I countered with, "Look, lady, those four little black kids killed last summer in Birmingham were in your Lord Jesus's sanctuary, a Christian Baptist church, and they were blown to bits by nice, white racist Christians.

    Usage from 1990:

    "Look, lady, we're closing in fifteen minutes, and I'm not about to get involved in your transaction."

    Usage from 2010:

    The bartender glanced around, too, and leaned toward her, whispering, none too softly.

    "Look, lady, if you've got some kind of rendezvous, that ain't none of my business, I don't want to know, but that's what the back door is for."

    Anyways, this is what I found. I'd be curious about whatever details people can fill in on the etymology here.

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    Are you sure the issue is Lady? It isn't the sneering tone of Look and Listen, and the corresponding message of You don't get it and need to listen up quick? Look, darling, it could be the setup before the Lady part. And listen, my friend, you may be right anyway. Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 22:31
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    Similarly with "Sir" when it is plainly not said out respect. Not so much mocking, but stating the speaker is acting correctly. Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 22:33
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    NOAD labels this usage as "mainly North American" so not everyone may see this connotation, but it definitely exists.
    – Laurel
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 22:39
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    Maybe there’s something here to inform your search? Is there a word for colloquial forms of address? Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 22:56
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    I mean, Look, Dude sounds that way too. It seems to me that it’s the look part that makes it sound condescending. Try Hey, Lady instead and see if it still turns pejorative. Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 1:23

2 Answers 2

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The pejorative or sarcastic use is given as definition 3b in the AHD:

Used as a form of address for a woman, often with sarcasm or irritation: Look, lady, I was ahead of you in line.

https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=lady

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From my research it looks as though "lady" was originally pejorative . It's etymology is mostly hypothesized, but consensus puts emergence of the word circa 1200. The word lady shed its pejorative bonds and reemerged in the mid 1800s to denote a woman of higher social status. Comparing the first known usage of lady to its counterpart lord:

The word 'lady'took on a negative connotation when it was first used in the mid 13th century- pejoratively used to describe a lady as one who is a servant, as well as one who eats loaves.

OED says the ground sense of the ancient word 'lady' seems to be "kneader, maker of bread;" it would have then advanced via Old Norse deigja and Middle English daie to mean "female servant, woman employed in a house or on a farm." By c. 1200 it had acquired the specific sense of "woman in charge of milking and making butter and cheese, dairy-maid."

Lady(literally "bread-kneader"), and Old English hlafæta "household servant," literally "loaf-eater." mid-13c., In contrast, the etymology of 'lord', the counterpart to 'lady', definitely has a far more positive connotation;

Lord, laverd, loverd, from Old English hlaford "master of a household, ruler, feudal lord, superior; husband," also "God," Old English hlaford is a contraction of earlier hlafweard, literally "one who guards the loaves," from hlaf "bread, loaf"

It is believed that the understanding of the status enjoyed by a 'lord' assisted the 'lady' in ascending to meet her counterpart.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 23:58
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    This appears a skewed reading of the etymology. Etymonline paints a more flattering picture, "Sense of 'woman of superior position in society' is c. 1200; that of 'woman whose manners and sensibilities befit her for high rank in society' is from 1861 (ladylike suggesting this sense is attested from 1580s, and ladily from c. 1400). Meaning 'woman chosen as an object of chivalrous love' is from early 14c. Used commonly as an address to any woman since 1890s...Applied since Old English to the Holy Virgin" No mention of pejorative meaning.
    – DW256
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 6:59
  • @Samantha I don't have an OED subscription. Is there any chance you can cite the OED's etymology section in your answer?
    – Jo Liss
    Commented Jul 30, 2023 at 14:47

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