Words about words: The doughy history of Lord and Lady

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Both Lord and Lady have their origins in baking. A lady is a kneader of bread, while the lord is its guardian.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Lord and Lady are English words with many meanings, the first of which indicate the positions of heads of households in the British aristocracy. In American English, the words Lord and Lady are used to connote social status in Great Britain. Together they have appeared from the early 20th century on in the titles of films and plays with British settings. Separately they are words in Norwegian, defined in Kunnskapsforlagets Norsk Ordbok (Kunnskapsforlag’s Norwegian Dictionary) as references to hereditary titles in English.

The two words come from Old English. Lord comes from the Old English hláford, a compound of hláf, meaning “bread,” and weard, meaning “guardian,” so the head of a household to which it applied meant “guardian of the bread.” Lady comes from the Old English hláf, again meaning “bread,” and part of a verb meaning “to knead,” together meaning “maker of bread.” Thereafter, contractions and respellings led to the Lávarðr and Lafði of Middle English that evolved to the modern words.

With one exception, the etymologies of the two words are not found outside English. Old Norse adopted Lávarðr and Lafði from Middle English. Thereafter there no traces of further evolution of the two words. But they are preserved in modern Icelandic; Lávarðr appears in the New Testament, and both words are used poetically. But otherwise no modern words evolve from them.

That said, the sense of the etymological evolution is found elsewhere: in today’s Danish and Norwegian, matmor designates the mistress of a large household.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

This article originally appeared in the June 16, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.