Once upon a time (you looked so fine, threw the bums a dime, etc.) — I’m sorry, but every time I hear or say “Once upon a time,” I can’t help but think of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” — we didn’t have to worry about every word we said. For example, words like “lady” and “gentleman” were fine. I think “gentleman” still is, but “lady” (with the possible exception of Lady Gaga) is often frowned upon by feminists, who see it as disempowering.
The problem is that lady has the implication of ladylike behavior, a certain kind of femininity and delicacy, one that seems to have little place in today’s highly competitive world. Google “ladylike” and the first thing you get is “appropriate for or typical of a well-bred, decorous woman or girl.” Who wants to be well-bred and decorous today? Keep in mind that “decorous” means “in keeping with good taste and propriety; polite and restrained.” Oh, yeah, sure. Any woman who acts that way is going to be making 59 cents to the man’s dollar rather than the usual 77 cents.
Actually, questions about the use of “lady” to mean an adult female have been around for a while. Consider this quote: “The regret has, of late, been made very manifest in polite circles as to the fast-disappearing usage of the old-fashioned and courtly word of ‘lady’…Upon this renewal of attention to the word have followed discussions of the perplexing question of the proper use of the term ‘lady’ and that of ‘woman.’” That quote is from an article in, you guessed it, The Ladies Home Journal, written in 1895!
Keep in mind that many years ago both “ladies” and “gentlemen” were used to refer to people of the upper crust. There was a clear classist ring to them, and even though the words later became much more widely applied, I don’t think that Downton Abbey flavor has ever fully left them. But while their use became more democratized, it has always carried the implication of politeness and graciousness — especially for “lady” — as in the old, and not very good, joke:
“Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
“That was no lady, that was my wife.”
But while I don’t think we’re hearing “lady” (and “ladies”) nearly as much as “gentleman” (and “gentlemen”), when we do hear “lady,” it still carries an aura of goodness. But I think this association with goodness is much more the case for lady than for gentleman. “Gentleman” is still widely used simply as a synonym for “man.” For example, on the local news, often when a witness is referring to a crime, he’ll refer to the perpetrator as a gentleman. He’ll say, “So then this gentleman walked in…”
Yes, then this gentleman walked in and hit the store owner over the head with a gun. That’s a gentleman? I kind of made that one up, but it’s based on numerous times I’ve seen that kind of statement on the news. Here’s a recent example from not simply an eyewitness, but a victim. This is from a woman, on a local news website in Seattle, describing her experience:
“‘I had this purse on my shoulder like this; however, the zipper was facing outward. So this gentleman came up from behind me, bumped into me really hard once and I didn’t think anything of it because it was really crowded. It was Happy Hour time so everyone was literally shoulder to shoulder,’ Kathy said.
“But then Kathy said the man bumped into her again.
“‘That’s when I noticed his scarf was hovering over my straps so I thought he was trying to get access to the scarf so I leaned forward to let him do that, not knowing at that time he was using that as a cover to stick his hand in my purse and steal my wallet,’ Kathy said.”
This woman has her wallet stolen, and the guy who stole it is a gentleman? I’ve never committed a crime, so if he’s a gentleman, I must be a super-gentleman!
Actually, given the way men are often talked about today, perhaps Milton Berle’s famous opening line on his incredibly popular early TV show, a line which was ultimately used by lots of Catskill comics, was closer to what some (not me!) see as the truth of masculinity. “Good evening, ladies and germs,” Berle would announce. I actually do remember that from my childhood. What I didn’t recall, but found when I looked up his obituary, was that he often followed that line with “I mean ladies and gentlemen. I call you ladies and gentlemen, but you know what you really are.”
“Saturday Night Live” it wasn’t, but remember that this was television’s earliest years.
Finally, I leave you with this. Why are there ladybugs but no gentlemanbugs? To get down to brass tacks here, without gentlemenbugs, how can we even still have ladybugs?