From Rags to Riches, or the Multifaceted Progress of Lady

By Anatoly Liberman at OUP Blog: Every English dictionary with even minimal information on word origins, will tell us that lord and lady are so-called disguised compounds. Unlike skyline or doomsday (to give two random examples), lord and lady do not seem to consist of two parts. Yet a look at their oldest forms—namely, hlāf-weard and hlæf-dīge—dispels all doubts about their original status (the hyphens above are given only for convenience). In the course of time, the first “halves” in those words yielded Modern English “loaf.” Originally, they meant “bread.” The components –dīge and –weard stood for “kneader” and “ward” respectively.

Today, –dīge means nothing to us. It is related not to the verb dig but to the noun dough. However, –dige has a much closer descendant in Modern English, namely, dey. At present, this word is regional. It was borrowed from Old Norse into Middle English and means “maidservant.” Its cognates occur everywhere in Modern Scandinavian, especially often in compounds. The story certainly began with a kneader, because Icelandic deig and German Teig still mean “dough.” Even the fourth-century Gothic, the oldest Germanic language known to us, had the same word.

Though the way from a “bread-kneader” (that is, “a servant”?) to “lady, mistress” looks odd, the other suggestions are even worse. The original OED admitted the implausibility of the proposed etymology, Skeat added perhaps to it, the second edition of the Century Dictionary did the same, and the attempts by early amateurs to explain lady as “bread-dispenser” cannot even be considered. For amusement’s sake, I may note that for some time, the tremendously popular Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-1922) coexisted with Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832). In both, I ran across a letter, published in 1772 and 1817, respectively. The texts are almost identical, and I suspect that the second one was a plagiarized version of the first. Here is the relevant passage from the earlier letter: “You must know, then, that heretofore it was the fashion for those families whom God had blessed with affluence, to live constantly at the mansion-houses in the country, and that once a week, or oftener, the lady of the manor distributed to her poor neighbours, with her own hands, a certain quantity of bread, and she was called by them the Leff-day, i.e. in Saxon, bread-giver.”…

More here.