What’s in a name?

If Greg Avioli, president and CEO of Breeders’ Cup, pays any attention to the Thoroughbred Bloggers’ Alliance, he must feel mighty chuffed at how his little plan is working out.

Here we are in mid-March, fresh off a weekend of Derby preps with some big-name colts running, and while we’re certainly talking about those races, we’re also talking about—and giving a lot of press to—Mr. Avioli’s little idea about Ladies’ Day at the Breeders’ Cup.

Bloggers are writing, and readers are commenting, and if we were felines, the fur would be flying.

It seems clear that nobody’s mind is going to get changed; that is not, however, going to stop me from weighing in again, following a weekend of thinking about language and the status of the female in racing.

To those who insist that “lady” carries no negative connotations and is a fitting name for the race formerly known as the Distaff, consider whether you would also find it appropriate if we had a Gentlemen’s Classic. As has been pointed out, the race could not be named that because it’s not sex-restricted–a fair point–but anyone who says that calling a race the gentlemen’s anything would get serious consideration is either a fool or a liar.

Etymology fan that I am, I went to the dictionary to consider the word “lady.” According to our friends Merriam and Webster, the word dates to before the twelfth century and comes from Old English roots meaning “bread”; the entry suggests that the word’s meaning is akin to “a kneader of bread.” We have common ground here with distaff, whose roots trace back similarly and come from the Old English words for “flax” and “staff.” Thus, both “lady” and “distaff” are linked in meaning to the domestic arts.

No problem so far, right? Etymologically, we’re in good shape.

So let’s move on to denotation: what these words mean. Here’s what we get, in the order presented in the dictionary:

Lady: “1a: a woman having proprietary rights or authority especially as a feudal superior; 1b: a woman receiving the homage or devotion of a knight or lover… 3a: a woman of superior social position; 3b: a woman of refinement and gentle manners…”

So our first and preferred meaning refers to the “lady” of medieval times—“lady” is a technical term referring to a female’s elevated social status. The second definition, not noted above, uses “lady” with “our” to denote the Virgin Mary. The third definition, and thus the third preferred meaning, focuses on the woman’s standing based on her male suitor; the third definition also refers to social status, and to a certain type of behavior (“refinement and gentle manners”).

It is only after all of these definitions that we come to this, in 3c: “Woman, female—often used in a courteous reference,” and even here, we cannot see “lady” as a synonym for “female,” because the dictionary-makers remind us of the role that manners play in this particular definition.

The fourth definition presented defines “lady” in relation to the men in their lives: “4a: wife. 4b: girlfriend, mistress.”

None of this is necessarily negative or positive; it simply suggests that “lady” brings a lot more to the table than “female” does. The two words are not synonyms. For the record, the primary definition of female: “(1): of, relating to, or being the sex that bears young or produces eggs.”

Distaff: Unsurprisingly, the definitions for distaff aren’t quite as extensive as those for “lady.” We get “a staff for holding the flax, tow, or wool in spinning…woman’s work or domain…the female branch or side of a family.”

Interestingly—very interestingly to me—distaff is far more objective. There’s nothing there about behavior or social status, only about work and sex. Distaff means “female” in a way that the complicated “lady” does not. And given that these wonderful race fillies and mares are in fact working for a living, associating them with “women’s work or domain” seems entirely appropriate to me.

Then again, simply calling the race the Filly and Mare Classic would be fine with me. Just not the Ladies’ Classic. As the Writing Guide for the University of Victoria points out, “Connotations can be both positive and negative; for example, lady carries a hint of both elegance and subservience.” While a filly in motion might certainly be described as elegant, that’s not the first word that would come to my mind to describe her (a matter of opinion, yes, and arguable, certainly), and subservience has no place in the discussion at all.

A quick look at the stakes races run in New York shows that of the seventy races named for horses, a full forty-two of them—far more than half—are named for fillies or mares. This includes the Ladies’ Handicap, first run in 1868 and the oldest stakes race in the country specifically for fillies and mares. None among us could argue that what was acceptable for women in 1868 is far different from what it is today, and that being called a “lady” in 1868 meant something different from what it does today (just read the Brontes or Hawthorne if you don’t believe me).

Why, then, would we revert to nomenclature that hearkens back 140 years in naming the premier race for female horses in the twenty-first century? As women are no longer primarily thought of as bread-kneaders or flax-spinners, let us also escape from definitions of being female that speak to notions of behavior and social status, and to choose a name that more accurately reflects and honors the role of women—both equine and human—in racing today.

Sign the petition!

3 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Signed it. Were I a horse-loving woman, I’d surely be insulted. I’m insulted anyway, for the horse-loving women I know!

  2. The language we use speaks subtle truths about how we view the world, but I believe the context of that usage reveals more. It is the studied, artificial nature of the title Ladies Classic that bothers me more than the use of the word ladies in general. I find myself, say, on the sidewalk, sometimes saying, “Good afternoon, ladies,” quite naturally, even though, if I think about it, know that it’s antiquated. I’m perfectly willing to be called a gentleman in that situation. It’s the persona I’m choosing to adopt at that moment, one where I address most likely strangers in what ought to be perceived as a civilized, courtly manner. But, to me, saying something like that in a greeting is far different than what Avioli & Co. have done. I think the impression left by the whiff of stale marketing and condescension is one of a clueless patronizing, an ignorance that speaks to half or more of all the things wrong with racing. Well-meant bad ideas are bad ideas just the same. I find it unlikely that people that could create a race, in these times, called the Ladies Classic would have it in them to admit it’s a big, stupid mistake. Condescension is born of not just ignorance but arrogance. Racing needs to wake up and realize there isn’t a lot of margin left for error, and it’s time for fresh minds with fresh ideas. And that’s not a call for tossing out tradition but, rather, a desire to find new ways to show why the traditional game of horse racing is so great. Goodnight, my good woman — J.S.

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