What are the origins of lord and lady?
Old English might have English right there in the name, but that doesn’t mean that it’s familiar to speakers of English today. The original spellings of some words bear so little resemblance to how they are spelt today that they are all but impossible to recognize. And in transforming their spellings, the origins and the connections between words can be hidden.
Take, for example, Old English hlāford and hlǣfdīge. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t immediately recognise what the present-day equivalents of these are. Could a few clues and a bit of word history help us figure it out?
There is one word just about visible in both of these for those with a very keen eye and some background knowledge: loaf, the modern English reflex of Old English hlāf meaning ‘bread’, which is the first element of our two compounds.
Now we’re getting somewhere: we know that both hlāford and hlǣfdīge are compounds, and that their first element refers to ‘bread’. What about the second part?
Bread, dough, and dairy
Hlāford, once upon a time, was hlāfweard. The latter part here, weard, is not so different from the word it gave us today: ward. The meaning of hlāford was, literally, ‘bread-keeper’.
In hlǣfdīge, we once more have a first element derived from hlāf ‘bread’. Our other half this time, dīge, is related to present-day dough—it originated from a Germanic base meaning ‘knead’. The meaning of hlǣfdīge (literally, again) was ‘bread-kneader’.
From dīge ‘a kneader’ (or a closely related word) the sense was generalized to ‘a female servant’, which developed again into the more specific ‘a woman employed in a house or farm’. This eventually became dey, meaning ‘a woman having charge of a dairy’, and was extended to include men performing similar tasks from around the 14th century. Dey is now obsolete except in some Scottish dialects.
The same word with the addition of the suffix -ery (seen in e.g. confectionery, archery, rookery) gives us dairy i.e. the place where the dairymaid worked.
So, now we know the literal meaning of these Old English compounds, and the evolution of the compounds’ elements; is it obvious yet what words they developed into? Of course not! Because when we hear lord—hlāford—or lady—hlǣfdīge—now, we usually aren’t thinking about bread.
The origin of lord and lady
Bread, as a staple and filling food, has often been used symbolically to represent nourishment, which is how it has found its way into a number of idioms as well as sneaking into two common English words. In lord, the ‘bread-keeper’ was the person responsible for providing food for his dependents, and consequently the head of the household. The sense of lord as ‘the male head of a household’ eventually evolved into ‘a nobleman’. The idea of a lord as a landowner with a responsibility to those living on his property still exists in landlord and the phrase lord of the manor, as well as being found in historical uses of lord.
A lady, as the ‘bread-kneader’, was again expected to supply food for those living under her roof, although it seems her role was concerned more with making the meals than that of her husband. Again, we can see the ownership sense linger in landlady, lady of the manor, and lady of the house.
In the homes of lords and ladies, this responsibility regarding food did not extend only to their immediate family. In many formal households, servants lived with those they served, and the fact that the hlāford and hlǣfdīge of the house bore the obligation of feeding their servants is reflected in the Old English word hlāf-ǣta meaning servant. Hlāf we already know, and ǣta may sound more familiar if spoken: a hlāf-ǣta was the ‘bread-eater’.