Today we can use this word to refer to any woman, if we so choose, as well as women who happen to have it as a title. You might be forgiven for thinking that its origins are associated with words meaning “woman”, “girl” or perhaps, thinking about the historical context of the title, “wife of a lord”.
In fact, as we shall see, there is much more to the story than that. We can find references to “lady” in similar forms to the one we use today from around the 14th century onwards. Before that, and continuing in tandem with the modern form for a while, there was another sound in the middle of the word that has now been lost: /f/ or sometimes /v/.
In the 1200s, we can find the Middle English forms lafdi, leafdi and lavede. Here is an example from the Ancrene Wisse, which was a list of rules written for anchoresses, women wishing to live a religious life similar to hermits, from around 1230:
Þe oþer is as leafdi, þeos as hire þuften.
(The inner rule is as lady, the external rule as her servant).
This form may seem removed from its modern counterpart, but it had already come a long way. Compare the form in the Saxon Chronicle from around the 9th Century:
Ðá com seó hlǽfdige hider tó lande
(Then came the lady to this country).
At that time, the word was hlǽfdige, used to mean a highborn lady, the wife of a lord – the reference here is to the wife of King Aethelred. And this is where it gets very interesting. We can break this word into two parts: hlǽf, or hlaf and dige. You might recognise a modern version of hlaf, not as “lady”, but in the word “loaf”. And that’s exactly what it meant then, too; “bread” or “loaf”. This meaning continued to be associated with the word hlaf, while the compound word took on another meaning. Here is hlaf sometime after the Saxon Chronicles, from the Blickling Homilies, dated to the 10th century.
Sing ðis on ánum berenan hláfe and syle ðan horse etan
(Sing this over a barley loaf and give it the horse to eat)
The second part of hlǽfdige is of course dige. Although it had come to mean “maid”, it has its origins in daege, which meant “breadmaker”, from dág, meaning “dough”. As you can see, “dough” is itself from the same root, making it a modern cognate of “lady”, or at least of its second half!
Does this mean that historically women were in charge of baking the bread? Or was bread-making considered such an important activity that the woman in charge had to be a ruler? Perhaps the etymology can tell us something about cultural norms at that time.