That's no lady, that's my sister;Opinion

28th May 1999 at 01:00
POOR Tom is having woman trouble again. To be precise he is having sister trouble because Sarah and Ginny have taken issue with my son's belief that they will grow up to be "beautiful ladies".

The girls have imbibed their mother's disdain for the honorific lady. Women who clean are ladies. Women who serve school dinners and use their lollipops to see our children across the road are ladies. Ladies - unless they are in waiting to the Queen - tend to be poorly paid females whose job is given pseudonymous dignity by a nomenclature we borrow from the toffs.

The English language is a flexible tool but all too often it gets used for obfuscation rather than illumination. "Lady" is a euphemism for when we sense embarrassment, either in the presence of employees or with intimate items like the women's lavatory or Philips Ladyshave (why can't it just be called a "Woman's Razor" after all?) The French feel no discomfiture over having their houses dusted by a femme - rather than a dame - de menage. They also call the woman who tidies hotel rooms a femme de chambre whereas we Brits go all euphemistic with the archaic term chambermaid.

We also prefer to call the woman who serves us beer a barmaid whereas the French speak, matter of factly, of a serveuse (one who serves). Sensible; and very much how it should be.

But all this is very confusing to a seven-year-old. Having been brought up in a household of three women (one adult, two trainee) Tom feels the need to stand his ground. Which is why last week he offered the compromise that Ginny and Sarah could still be girls when they grow up.

Sarah was outraged. Women who grow up to be girls are playthings: call girls, shop girls, bunny girls, and Bond girls. "We are women Tom. Don't call us girls, babes, birds and most of all don't call us ladies!" And yet when Tom was offered a sweet in the market recently I found myself nudging him to acknowledge the stall-holder's gift with the words "Say thank you to the lady." "That's degrading," Tom told me. "She's a woman."

"No, she's not," I replied. In Britain unknown women are always ladies. And so are people who marry lords or go out to clean for a living. Try explaining that to a seven-year-old.

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