Since last column I looked at a word originally used to refer to lower-class women, баба, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at the other side – дамы. Before the revolution, any woman who looked like she fit on the higher end of the social scale could be called дама, or a lady.
You hear this word most frequently today when speakers address an audience as дамы и господа (ladies and gentlemen). This was not, of course, used during the Soviet era, such terms not fitting in with prevailing sensibilities. And apparently it was not actually in widespread use prior to the revolution.
In her interesting book The Russians and Their Language (1916), the Russian translator Nadezhda Dzharintsova wrote that before the revolution the correct address to an upper-class group that included women actually would have been милостивые государи и государыни (literally “gracious lords and ladies”).
Дама is still used today quite often to refer to women. Like баба, in most circumstances, the word has lost its original class connotations. It has just become a slightly more fancy way of saying “woman”, much the same way that we use “lady” in conversation. Here’s a line from an article on business etiquette: Мужчины, обычно галантные в обращении с дамами, не знают, нужно ли им держать дверь открытой, чтобы дать представительнице прекрасного пола пройти, или нет. (Men who are usually gallant with women don’t know whether to hold the door open for members of the fairer sex.) You might also hear about the weaker sex – слабый пол; note that Russian doesn’t use the comparative forms like English often does in these phrases.
Whatever he decides to do with the door, a man using this word sounds a little more gallant or polite, as when ushering a group of women into a room with: Дамы – прошу. (Ladies, please come in.)
On the other hand, if you want to translate “lady” from English in its usage as a conversational, slightly derogatory address, you should go with женщина or девушка instead: Lady, will you please move your car out of my way? (Эй, девушка! Машину с дороги уберите!)
Like женщина, дама often refers to older women. This is not exclusively true, but is if there is a comparison (as in this dating advice web site): Но это отнюдь не значит, что молодые девушки проигрывают зрелым дамам. (But this doesn’t mean at all that young girls lose out to mature women.)
As девушка is the younger version of женщина, so барышня is a younger дама. As far as usage goes, it feels about the same as “Miss” does in American English: slightly outdated, and either overly formal or slightly sarcastic.
Alternatively, барышня can just fit the slightly precious voice of a woman’s magazine: Загорелым девушкам рекомендованы коралловые оттенки румян, а белокожим барышням – розово-оранжевые. (A coral shade of blush is recommended for tan girls, and a pinkish-orange shade for fair misses.)
On a side note, Russian has a great phrase for women in that transition period from барышня to дама. Women over 30 can be said to be женщины бальзаковского возраста (literally: women in their Balzac years). English has the phrase “women of a certain age”, but this is a bit older, what in Russian would be под сорок (pushing 40).
So, again, when addressing strangers, anyone below about 35 gets called девушка, and anyone over it gets called женщина. Unfortunately, дама doesn’t work if you want to address a person walking by on the street or get the attention of a shop assistant. It’s too bad we can’t bring back the age-neutral Soviet form of address гражданка, which literally means “citizeness”. You even hear people in Soviet-era films use the affectionate and colloquial diminutive гражданочка. (Incidentally, гражданка is also a colloquial name for civilian life, as opposed to army life.)
One final context when you might hear дама used involves formal dancing; in the pair, the woman is дама, and the man is her кавалер (escort). A description of a ballroom dance: К даме подходят три кавалера. Дама выбирает одного и танцует с ним…
And if the lady you’re dancing with is a woman of negotiable virtue? Then she’s a женщина легкого поведения (literally – a woman of easy/lax behavior).
Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of www.themoscownews.com, where they appear every two weeks.
Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.