Hey, honey - is our female servant coming today? The house is a mess.

Cringe…

That made you uncomfortable, right?

 

Statements like this make us squirm in our chairs because they go against the expectations of our modern-day communication styles. This isn’t Dickensian London, after all. No one says “female servant.” In reality though, we speak like this every day. Many of us just might not recognize it.

Do you know your etymology?

The word “maid” has its roots in 12th century Middle English when it was used as a shorthand for “maiden,” a word which, although used of both sexes, was often used to describe “a virgin; a young, unmarried woman.” It wasn’t until the 1300s when it began to take on its more modern form as a word to describe domestic help.

Current dictionary definition

The current dictionary definition of the word “maid” is, you guessed it, “female servant.”

 

What is etymology?

Etymology, the history of words, is critical. Meanings change and evolve over time, yes, but knowing how words have been used can help us see important nuances and connotations. It helps us use words more wisely, appropriately, and helps us avoid using words that cause harm.

Hurtful Words

When you think of bad or harmful words, what comes to mind? More than likely, it’s things like expletives, profanity, and overt slurs that are so widely anathematized that we as a society have agreed on which ones to bleep out on the radio and which warrant an R rating at the movies.

But we can do better

There’s “spaz,” a word often used to describe someone that’s acting with low physical or emotional control, but the word actually originated from “spastic,” used to describe people with cerebral palsy.

There are countless words that, although not considered profanities, deserve a second look at how we use them in casual conversation.

There’s “hysterical,” which comes from the now-debunked psychological disorder “hysteria,” which the medical community deemed a disease specific to women that included symptoms like “shallow volatile emotions and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior.” Yikes.

and then there’s “maid”

What’s wrong with the word “maid”?

Although the older “virgin” definition is now recognized as archaic, a maid is still described as “female servant.” What’s wrong with this?

Irrelevance

“Maids” isn’t actually exclusive to house cleaning. Historically, maids have had duties spanning from cleaning and cooking to answering the door and accompanying the lady of the house for travel. Many maids were also live-in help. Rather than an occasional service, they were household staples.

At CottageCare, we are house cleaning professionals. We are contracted by homeowners across the country who, in an effort to get some of their time with friends and family back, have us handle their house cleaning. We’re professionals who are good at what we do, doing it for people who are too busy to do it themselves.

That’s a far cry from the maids of yesterday who were employed round-the-clock to handle everything so the homeowners didn’t have to do anything.

Sexist

As we mentioned before, “maid” in the earliest sense of the term could refer to both unmarried women and men, but since that time, it has predominantly been used to refer to women. Consequently, the job of a “maid” (house cleaners) has primarily been viewed as women’s work, discouraging male participation and reinforcing outdated, stereotypical gender roles we as a society have been working so long to break.

If you don’t use the word “maid,” maybe you’ve used this other popular synonym to describe your house cleaner – “cleaning lady.” This term is even more sexist! “Cleaning lady” is more popular than “house cleaner” and has been growing in popularity over the last decade.

Demeaning

So, yes, men can be professional home cleaners too!

Our staff are professional house cleaners. It’s real and it’s a point of pride. CottageCare has sophisticated systems for cleaning homes that are time-efficient and quality-effective, and our crew deserves titles commensurate with that skill. “Maids” has often been used in demeaning applications, and because of those applications, still carries with it those negative associations. We believe it’s best to dissociate from the word because of those reasons.

First of all, people working as maids tended to be ranked lower in the socioeconomic hierarchy. The British television program from the 1970s called “Upstairs, Downstairs” that illustrates this point well.

You can see it right from the opening scene – the new maid knocks on the front door to report to her first day of work, only to be sent to a separate entrance for “the help.” Using the word “maid” only conjures up this archaic classism that is far from appropriate in today’s house cleaning industry.

Historically, “maids” has also been closely tied to race. In some cases, it has even reinforced segregation. Because maid service was seen as low-skilled work that didn’t require an education, people who found themselves in that role were often immigrants or African Americans (especially in the Jim Crow era South – ex: The Help).

Uniform Fetishism

There’s also the association with uniform fetishism that evolved out of the French-style maid uniform.

We certainly don’t want to introduce a sexual context into this industry, and yet some of the players in the industry even use the maid uniform in their logos and graphics.

It’s safe to assume times are changing. I think it is imperative to ensure the utmost professionalism between employee and employer.

- Dakota

Despite all this, the use of the word “maid” in the U.S. has remained fairly steady over the past five years.

If we want to divorce our industry from these outmoded and demeaning associations, it’s high time we removed the word “maid” from our vocabulary, including how we name cleaning companies and their staff. We only reinforce these damaging ideas by continuing to use the term in our industry.

“But I didn’t mean it that way!”

Sure, and you may not have. However, it doesn’t just matter how you mean it. It matters how the other person perceives it.

The intent vs. perception debate is nothing new, and as a society, we’ll likely always have words we’re debating this way. The point is, because words are powerful, we need to care less about our personal freedoms and more about the other person’s feelings.

When people refer to me as a maid, it makes me feel like I’m undervalued as a person. It’s basically saying that I’m subject to fulfilling customers request as opposed to doing it out of professionalism and the willingness of my heart.

- Taylor Flythe

When people refer to me as a professional house cleaner there is a sense of respect and a solid interpersonal relationship between parties. When they refer to me as a maid they give off the demeanor that I’m beneath them.

- Taylor Flythe

Name-signaling

Some research has even found that the way we talk about someone affects the way we treat and view them.

Name-signalling studies have found a correlation between what ethnicity a person’s name sounds like and the rate at which those applicants get called in for interviews.

 

Etymology of profanity

Author Melissa Mohr, who wrote a book on the etymology of profanity, comments on the fact that it’s more taboo in today’s culture to use words that demean a person’s identity – to laugh at people we feel are “beneath” us.

She says this shift is “a sign that culturally we are able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes a little bit more than we were in the past, and, at least notionally and linguistically, respect people of all sorts.”
Labels matter. They not only affect the way we treat people, but affect the way we make people feel. However, it’s important to remember that context is still a huge issue.

If you take away the word, but don’t take away the meaning and context, you haven’t improved anything. We have to do better than simply changing our vocabulary.

The importance of principles

Act justly. Be generous. Walk humbly.

It’s what prevented us from giving in and using the term “maids” even though most of our competitors use it.

Truth be told, going against the common vernacular has meant missing out on business.

We didn’t just pick our values statement because it sounded nice. We picked it because it permeates everything CottageCare does.

When 260 people per month search “best maid service” or 320 per month search “maids near me,” guess which company isn’t going to show up?

For us, it was never a question.

Will you join us?

So “maids”?
No way

Acting justly means putting people over profits. The “Care” in CottageCare extends not only to our customers, but to those within our organization as well.

We know that banning words isn’t a silver bullet for changing perceptions of our industry, but it’s a start. Taking a word out of your vocabulary is a small price to pay to give nearly 1 million people their dignity back.