I’ve heard that snarky comment that old teachers never die; they just lose their class. Well, I, too, may have lost my class, but I think that for me the snarky comment that fits is old English teachers never die, they just keep correcting people’s grammar. Aha! But today I will just make an observation not on grammar, but on a word choice that has been bugging me lately.
According to Webster, a woman is an adult female person; a lady is a woman of refinement or gentle manners. So how many times have you heard someone make a comment about seeing a lady who has fallen down drunk in the ditch? Or the mention of a lady who yelled an expletive deleted? Or a woman has done something most people would consider less than ladylike on a TV show and then she’s referred to as a lady ? You get the idea.
Connotation and denotation become important when teaching vocabulary and writing because many words have similar denotations, their literal dictionary meanings, but they also have certain connotations that really carry the weight of the word. Connotation is the underlying emotional association that can make all the difference in how something spoken or written will be understood or perceived. For example, describing someone as being of slender build would sound more complimentary than saying that person was skinny, when in fact, both words could describe the same body type. Compare fragrance versus odor.
And I know that the denotations, or literal definitions, of lady and woman aren’t exactly the same, but they do both refer to a female of our species. But the connotations certainly aren’t the same. Ladies don’t fall down drunk in the gutter. And really, neither should women, whom I expect to behave in a more mature manner. Perhaps just referring to misbehaving females as female would get the job done. But then, someone would be offended by that these days, too, I guess.
Perhaps the often-used phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen” is partly to blame because that encompasses both sexes and implies good behavior of both sexes, but males behaving badly aren’t casually referred to as gentlemen, so why should females behaving badly get cut any slack? Oh, wait, there is at least one male exception that comes to mind-strip clubs trying to gloss over their purpose by being called Gentlemen’s Clubs,
For me, the connotation that comes to mind with the word woman is strength, maturity, good sense. The connotation for the word lady is gentleness, good manners, appropriate behavior.
So you might think about that the next time you refer to a female as a lady when woman or even just female might fit better.
Okay, I will put up my soapbox now.
Oh, and one more thing-connotation comes into play with the use of euphemisms.
But that’s another lesson!