Writer in Residence

Re: (Whether It Is) Becoming (To Be) a Lady and the Use of the Word in Jamaican Creole (Jc)

By Pamela Mordecai

News flash! Author copies of my novel, Red Jacket, arrived in the mail yesterday. https://www.dundurn.com/books/... About to post this exploration of the use of the word ‘lady’ in the land of my birth and here in North America, I put a question to myself about the many female persons, the heroine Grace included, in Red Jacket. Women? Ladies? Both? Neither? Hmmnnn... Five ladies maybe, and three women? Except who’s who would shift, depending on the ‘speaker’. But I get ahead of myself...

Languages change. In particular, languages that are primarily oral change – I say primarily because increasingly, languages have a written-down dimension. One of the things that have urged them to be so is the Internet. Books it may be doing away with, but not words. The discussion about who is a lady, about what the word means to – let’s say, Jamaicans, because I think it’s us who were debating lady-ness on Twitter – is quickly dispatched by at least one authority. The Dictionary of Caribbean English (DCE) says a lady is a “woman, any adult female,” and then after some interesting history (check page 336), concludes, “In present CE (Caribbean English) LADY is the generally accepted term for a ‘woman’, while CE ‘woman’ tends to be offensive.” The DCE was published in 1996, so not that long ago, the way languages work. The examples of usage make pretty clear that this was not an uptown, high social class, knife-and-fork-and-curtsy-to-the-queen ‘lady’; one spoke of the “fish lady” and the “market lady,” and the “bag lady,” none of these being middle class occupations.

So of the 4 Jamaican discussants on Twitter, I was ‘right’ according to Allsopp. But that’s the least interesting or noteworthy part of all of this. One of our discussants is not a born-and-grow Jamaican, which matters where language use is concerned, as my own ingrained-from-youth notion of the word demonstrates. The other two I think are young folks, inheritors of the attitudes of woman’s liberation (a time when they may not have been born) and the feminist movement and push for gender equality. If most men were not ‘gentlemen’, why should most women be ‘ladies’? And I am guessing they have both lived in foreign. (I am sure only in one case.)

I learned that the word ‘woman’ was preferred to ‘lady’ in 1960, when I came to the USA to go to college. My usage changed somewhat over time, I suppose, but I’m not even sure of that. I think – and I am no linguist, just a woman of age thinking about my own use of the word over many decades – that I used and use ‘lady’ for real, live women, so that I would say, in an essay, “Caribbean women have always been strong and assertive,” whereas I would say of the women in the St Bride’s Mother’s Union, “That is one strong, assertive set of ladies.” That’s how I, and most of the Jamaican women I know (also women many decades old), would likely use both words. But I do think that usage may be related to how old I am, and I wonder whether most Jamaican people who are twenty or thirty years of age would use the word in the same way. So what would be interesting is to sample how Jamaicans of (1) particular ages, who have (2) studied and lived abroad in the ‘North’ for a length of time – or not – use the word ‘lady’.

I’m trying to think of other words that may have changed in their application, and may now be used by younger people (especially those who have travelled and lived in the North) differently from older Jamaican folks. So far, none come to mind.

There’s one other aspect of the matter that I want to say a little bit about. Briefly, the context of the discussion was whether beauty pageants were useful in that they taught young women how to be ‘ladies’ – and there was some scorn in the direction of lady-making activity. Which I share. But I’ll stick my neck out and hazard a guess that some of the young Jamaican beauties who enter these contests may not be university-educated and widely travelled, and so may not have been exposed to that set of experiences that ‘sophisticates’ the ones of us who have done those things. I suspect the ‘learning how to be a lady’ exercise is just a crash course in how to present to a world that turns on (some of them very hypocritical) ritualized exchanges and behaviours. I learned to say “Such a pleasure to meet you” and to respond, “Thank you” (huh?) when this was said to me, as part of one such set piece with which I was not previously familiar, for I was a bumpkin, I freely confess. The Jamaican equivalent I knew would have been Hi-or-hello-with-a-smile, or some kinesic activity (friendly punch, handshake, especially between boys and men) or pertinent remarks from the real world, such as:
“Oh! You are the lady from Sunday School!”
“I glad to know you, for is a long time X or Y or Z been talking about you!”
“So you are really the schoolmate Mummy was always telling us about, the one that used to do everybody math homework and charge them nuff dollars?”

I wouldn’t have minded the crash course, because there were times when I felt stupid as I mumbled and stumbled, before I knew that the weather was ever to be remarked on, and that I should tell everyone newly met that I looked forward to seeing them again, even when the event was highly unlikely, even when I dearly hoped it would never happen! The world is not a nice place. Having someone make the way a little easier by a bit of ladifying can’t hurt, as long as it comes with fair warning that one should remain oneself, always, as one trots out the, “Do have a safe flight home!” “Best regards to everyone in Columbia/Sweden/Italy/Lesotho!” and so on, and so on. It’s not that I was raised to abjure concern and benevolence, but we were ordinary folks, and greeted and said farewell in many different ways, without stock phrases and many-times-mouthed mumblings.

As for the use of cutlery, crystal and finger bowls, and the mechanics of curtsies, well... No knowledge is wasted. Selah.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.