There is nothing like a dame

Yesterday’s posting brought up the Spanish verb adamarse ‘to become as delicate as a lady,’ based on dama. Spanish had borrowed dama from French dame ‘a lady,’ preserving the word’s positive senses. English has used and still uses the word positively, too: in Britain a dame is ‘the wife of a knight or baronet,’ and it is also ‘the title of a woman who has been given an order of knighthood,’ e.g. the recently deceased Dame Joan Sutherland. But English also uses the word informally, even disparagingly, to mean ‘a woman’ in general, as in the title of a song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” An example like that might lead people to assume the derogatory sense is a relatively recent Americanism, perhaps from the early 20th century, but the originally ironic usage goes back in place to England, and in time at least to around 1700. Here’s an early example by Dr. Alexander Hamilton (1715–1756), from his 1744 Gentleman’s Progress: “I went this morning with Mr. Peach and breakfasted att [sic] the house of one Monsieur Bodineau, a Frenchman, living in School Street. This house was well furnished with women of all sorts and sizes. There were old and young, tall and short, fat and lean, ugly and pritty [sic] dames.”

As English sees it, while there may be all sorts of dames, and nothing else like one, they’re all still women. The Spanish plural damas, however, refers to the board game that British English calls draughts and American English checkers; Spanish conceives the game’s pieces as ‘ladies.’ In particular, a piece that reaches the farthest row on the opposite side of the board gets crowned with a second checker and is henceforth known as a dama (but English uses the other gender and calls it a king). In a different game played on the same board as checkers, chess, Spanish can use dama for the piece it also knows as the reina ‘queen.’ And in the world of botany, dama de noche is the colloquial name, carried over even into English, of a certain plant in the nightshade family that puts forth fragrant flowers at night.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: rana « Spanish-English Word Connections
  2. Trackback: Here we go again « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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