My mother’s loathing for the word lady occupies a special place in her pantheon of negativity.
To be specific, she doesn’t actually mind lady as a word or a title of the peerage—as seen in, say, Lady Day*, The Lady Vanishes, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s when the word appears in lyrics that she puts her foot down. (And even then, there’s a disclaimer: some lyrics are okay. “Luck Be a Lady,” “The Lady Is a Tramp”—these, among others, are acceptable.)
What she hates, specifically, is the use of lady as a synonym for woman, or, especially, for girlfriend. There is no easier way to rile her—and she is very easily riled—than to blast Styx’s “Lady,” Kenny Rogers’s “Lady,” the Commodores’ “Lady,” “Sentimental Lady,” or even “Tiny Dancer.” To her, the usages in these songs connote variously 1960s possessive hippie-speak and 1970s cheesiness, which she found, in turn, socially and aesthetically abhorrent.
Her lip will curl with scorn; her eyes will narrow; a flush of rage will mount her cheeks. Often there is reference to a certain Berkeley commune she was kicked out of in 1969 for “having a bad attitude.” My brother and I have taken unseemly pleasure over the years in cranking up “She’s a Lady” whenever it plays on the oldies station.
Oddly enough, “Lay Lady Lay”—a song that contains not only the L-word but another of her bêtes noire, the misuse of the transitive—does not bother her. But then, it helps that in the case of most of those other songs, they are terrible.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
*Not, mind you, the Rod Stewart song.