The other day, we tweeted this:
As etymologies go, it’s probably one of the strangest (as well as one of the most deprecatory)—so what’s the story behind it? Well, lady is the descendent of the Old English word hlǣfdīge, which brought together hlāf, meaning “bread”, and dīge or dæge, an Old English word for a female servant or housekeeper.
As well as being the ancestor of the modern English loaf, hlāf is also thought to be etymologically related to another Old English word, hlifan, which meant something like “to build a tower” or “to tower upwards”—so there’s likely some ancient connection between rising dough and the construction of castles and keeps. They should really try using less yeast.
Dīge, meanwhile, essentially meant “housemaid” or “servant” in Old English, and is the ancestor of the (albeit fairly old-fashioned) English word for a dairymaid, dey. Its origins are thought to lie in the same ancient root as dough, and so it’s presumed that dīge might originally have referred to the servant or member of a household whose job it was to knead and bake bread—hence it’s later association with hlāf.
Hlǣfdīge ultimately meant something along the lines of “bread-kneader” or “dough-maker” in Old English—but that’s not to say that it was always used in that literal sense. In fact, by the time hlǣfdīge first began to appear in written English around 1000 years ago, it had already begun to take on some of the meanings and connotations of its modern equivalent, lady, so that by the Middle English period hlǣfdīge (or leafdi, as it had become by then) was being widely used to refer merely to the female head of a household—and it’s from there that our modern word eventually developed.
As the male equivalent of lady, incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that lord shared an almost identical history: in Old English, lord was hlāford, a compound of our old friend hlāf and the Old English ward or weard, meaning “keeper” or “guardian” (which is also the origin of the names Edward and Stuart, incidentally). A lord was therefore the head of a household, in charge of doling out a supply of bread to his inferior, menial servants.
And those inferior menial servants? Well, they were the hláf-ǽta in Old English—or the “bread-eaters”.