Etymology: Lord and Lady

Having recently watched the Harry Potter movies, I wondered where Lord Voldemort got his title from – what is the origin of the word ‘lord’?

The Oxford Dictionary (Australian Concise and online) tells me that the origin of the word is a Germanic one. In Anglo-Saxon times, the lord was known as the hläford, from the Viking hläfweard, meaning a bread-keeper or ‘bread ward’. The lord was responsible for providing bread for his household; therefore he was head of the house. This morphed into a nobleman, a man in charge of many more dependents.

The term ‘bread ward’ led me to look up the word ‘ward’. One derivation of ward is the word ‘warden’; that is, ‘someone who keeps’. It arrived in England with the Norman Conquest. The Normans were originally Vikings who ‘settled’ (read: took over) Normandy in France. However, later French influence introduced the word ‘guardian’, one of the many instances where English has two different words with the same meaning.

So if a lord is a bread-keeper, what is a ‘lady’? Lady comes from another Anglo-Saxon word, hlœfdīge, literally meaning ‘loaf dough’. The suffix dīge later became the word ‘dairy’, so a hlœfdīge was in charge of the household production of food. And as dough needs to be kneaded (no pun intended), the original ‘loaf-dough’ meant ‘loaf kneader’.

Hidden in the medieval etymology of the word ‘lady’, we see that, even then, women were doing the hard work!

Susan Pierotti
Communication subcommittee