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English on the March: Lady

As she has done so often in her life, Margaret Thatcher provides the exception that proves the rule.

The rule in question: Honourable Husband's #1 Law of Denglish.  No language borrows a foreign word just to sound cool.  The language has to need it.

Let's look at The Iron Lady, the film in which Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  In German, it's Die Eiserne Lady.

While praising Streep's performance, both sides of politics seem pissed off.  Toryblatt Daily Mail gripes that the film didn't make enough of her putative political accomplishments.  On the other hand, @piercepenniless tweets that I see the new Thatcher film doesn't start with her being sorcerously belched from the steaming tar-pits of hell.  Unaccountable oversight.  Apparently, the Russian version (title unkown) pulls no punches, either.

For the moment, we'll stick to the Deutscheausgabe and focus on the title.  Why would we use the German word for Iron, but the English word for Lady

Good question.  I asked it of a number of native German speakers. 

Most agreed that Die Eiserne Dame, the literal translation, would sound old-fashioned.  Perhaps the promoters of the film wanted to sound modern, they suggested.

Mildly convincing.  But we hear the same connotation in English.  A lady is an older, somewhat fancy woman, and using the word carries a lot of baggage.  It shows respect, perhaps even admiration for her grace and dignity.  The word Dame, borrowed from the French into both German and English, does so as well.  These terms suggest maturity, and a certain worldliness. 

A little too much worldliness, perhaps.  Feminists have long pointed out that such words for women carry a sexual charge—think ladies of the night.  Or, at the very least, they make women appear weak or dependent; ladylike is a synonym for dainty or delicate.

On that note, let's switch the language of our current discussion, just for a moment.  From Denglish to Engrish

The Iron Office Lady.

In the sixties and seventies, feverish economic growth taxed the spirit of the Japanese salaryman.  Long hours, compulsory after-hours bonhomme, and the company dormitory took a toll on his private life.  Many couldn't meet enough women to find a girlfriend, let alone a wife. 

So the curious job of office lady, or OL, was born. 

She was originally called a BG, for Business Girl, but that sounded a bit seedy.   In 1963, a magazine sponsored a competition to find a new name, and our girl became a lady in an instant.

There is a native term in Japanese for these women.  Shokuba no hana, or office flower, captures the decorative nature of her job.   What does she actually do?  She helps to make everyone feel happy  Such a job description might perplex westerners, but Japanese culture places high value on emotions—even, and especially, in business culture.  The job of making everybody happy is an important one, and the calling is noble.

That doesn't remove the sexual agenda from her duties.  We see it loud and clear in the late-nineties sitcom, Office Lady Police


I have a DVD of the first season, and it is one of the most treasured souvenirs of my time in Japan.  My husband—another treasured souvenir from my time in Japan—finds it insufferable trash and refuses to watch, so I can't give you an in-depth run-down.  But I'll try.

The series opens with the Ladies conducting a sting.  We see a tall, Porsche-driving hunk showering his girlfriend with expensive gifts.  But something smells fishy to our heroines.  They corner the couple, and after a quick swipe with a cotton pad and cold cream, they reveal that the woman is—shock!—actually one of those vulgar ganguro girls, with reverse-out eye shadow that makes her look like a photographic negative.  Boyfiend is devastated, since he is kind and sensitive as well as being tall and rich and driving a Porsche.  The Ladies take him off to a special Hunky Victims Unit for counselling by candlelight, over a bottle of Moët.

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The Ladies seem to spend a lot of time rescuing each other from embarassing scrapes or fending off nerdy salaryman suitors, and it leaves little scope for fighting crime. This demands excessive over-acting from their squad sergeant as he dresses them down.  If Office Lady Police were an American sitcom from 1966, rather than a Japanese sitcom from 1999, Paul Lynde would play this role.

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The Ladies keep up their energy by eating ice-cream, and dining on Italian food al fresco.  Oh, and their squad car is not the customary Suzuki Alto, but a trendy imported model—the tricky-to-pronounce Volkswagen Golf .  

Those, my English-speaking friends, are the hallmarks of a true lady

Titled Ladies

Back to Denglish.  In the course of our chat, one of my colleagues made an intriguing point.  She asked, "If you met  Silvio Berlusconi, and wanted to address him respectfully, what would you say?"

That anyone would want to address Silvio Berlusconi respectfully is a mighty big assumption, but I played along.  "I'd say, Signor Berlusconi..."

The penny dropped.  Some of the first words we learn of a foreign language, even if we don't speak it, are titles.  You might be a hardened monoglot, but you probably know the meanings of Herr and Frau, Señor and Señora, Monsieur and Madame. We'll use these words from time to time, out of respect for another's culture, or just to add local colour to an exotic character.

Shakespeare did it.  In his numerous Italian plays, he seldom uses the word Mister, preferring Signore.

When I lived in Japan, the lingua franca of our office was English. Yet we always used the suffix -san to address each other, or to refer to someone.  I knew it was a title, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what it meant, and where it fit on the scale of respect. (-chan, -kun, -san, -sama, -sensei.)

We tend to understand these words only in their most basic sense, though.  And seldom do we know the ins-and-outs of their usage, like how to abbreviate them.    English speakers can readily decipher the meaning of Señora Franco, but might pause for a moment before understanding Sra. Franco. That's why Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Men series becomes Mister Men in German.  This maintains a certain foreign flavour, but is easy enough for children to understand.

Mr. Happy was lifted with love (and permission) from A Bavarian Sojourn.

Here, the German use of lady probably echoes a title, rather than a noun.  Lord and Lady, or Sir and Lady, get used in English often enough to be recognisable by German speakers.  The converse, however, doesn't hold.  Few know words like Grafin (Countess) or Herzog (Duke) simply because such titles cannot be used officially, nowadays.

(Here's an aside.  It rather surprises me, then, that in Oscar Wilde's Ernst sein ist AllesTo Be Earnest Is Everything—Lady Bracknell becomes Tante Augusta. Perhaps it harks back to an era when English was not heard so commonly east of the Rhine.)

As it turns out, the German language doesn't need the word lady.  The promoters tossed it in, because Mrs. Thatcher was, and still is, an Englishwoman. 

If they were searching for a British title, they might have noted that our Margaret Hilda actually has one.  She is Baroness Thatcher.   Now, the last time I checked, Baron was a German word, too. 

Mind you, I last checked at the age of six, in the third frame of a Snoopy cartoon.  Perhaps German has changed since then.

Special hat tip to Julia and Billy, for your crucial language input.

Copyright notice: Eiserne Lady poster sourced from distributor's website.  OL Police images from DVD PIBD-1027.  Image of Mr. Happy in German from A Bavarian Sojourn.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism. If you use these images, similar conditions apply.

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