My wife was remarking on our cat Pushkin’s excessive fondness for dairy products when I realized I didn’t know the etymology of the word dairy. Not being one to accept such a state of affairs, I dashed off to consult the OED, and discovered that just as a nunnery is a place where nuns live, a dairy (originally deierie) is (or was) a place where deys work. And what is a dey, you ask? Why, it’s “A woman having charge of a dairy and things pertaining to it; in early use, also, with the more general sense, female servant, maid-servant.” The etymology is as follows:

[OE. dæȝe, corresp. to ON. deigja, maid, female servant, house-keeper (whence Sw. deja dairy-maid):—OTeut. *daigjôn, from ablaut-stem of the vb. (in Gothic) deigan, daig, dig-un, digan-, to knead; whence Goth. daigs, OE. dáȝ, dáh, dough.
The primitive meaning ‘kneader’, ‘maker of bread’, appears in OE. in the first quotation; in ON. and in early ME. we find the wider sense of ‘female servant’, ‘woman employed in a house or farm’. Cf. also ON. bú-deigja (, house, household) and mod. Norw. bu-deia, sæter-deia, agtar-deia. The same word, or a cognate derivative of the same root, is understood to form the second element in OE. hlæfdíȝe, hlæfdiȝe now LADY. See also DAIRY.]

So dough is ‘that which is kneaded,’ a dey was originally the woman who kneads it (whence ‘female servant’ and then specifically ‘woman who works in a dairy’), and a lady was a loaf-kneader. Isn’t that interesting?

A few citations for dey (which is apparently still used in the Caithness region of Scotland):
c1386 CHAUCER Nun’s Pr. T. 26 She was as it were a maner deye.
16.. in Maidment Sc. Pasquils (1868) II. 262 An old dey or dairy maid at Douglas Castle.
1721 RAMSAY To Gay xvii, Dance with kiltit dees, O’er mossy plains.
c1820 Lizie Lindsay in Child Ballads VIII. (1892) 524/1 My father he is an old shepherd, My mither she is an old dey.


  1. So fairy is where the fey are?

  2. This is just the sort of thing that makes us love etymology!
    As a further development, in NZ a corner shop is called a “dairy”. Here in Australia it’s called a “milk bar”. (I suppose this would be a “convenience store” in the US?)

  3. So “deja vu” means “Look at that dairy maid”?

  4. I suppose this would be a “convenience store” in the US?
    In New England, that’s traditionally called a “spa,” and there are still some around that haven’t been replaced by 7-11’s with that in their name.

  5. Well, you know the etymon of ‘lord’, right?

  6. Kari: Yes, indeed. Fairy, or rather Faerie, is the land of the fays, and that is the oldest meaning of “fairy” in English.

  7. nomis, a convenience store is not the same thing as what I would call a corner store. The former is a separate building, typified by 7-11 (there’s the charmingly named Harford Convenient Store near where I grew up in Baltimore). A corner store actually makes up the corner of a block of rowhouses, and as far as I know there are no corporate chains of them (thank goodness). I guess in New York the same thing might be called a bodega.

  8. I like the connection between “dough” and “dairy”; in a further bit of wackiness, the Turkish (wait, or Afghan?) drink “dough” is itself a dairy product!

  9. Fascinating, and not least for the fact that there’s no reference to milk in the etymology. It seems a dairy was originally a bakehouse. I wonder how the cheese got in there.

  10. Turkish (wait, or Afghan?) drink “dough”
    I think of it as typically Persian: دوغ, but I don’t know for sure where it originated. Cf. Sanskrit दुग्ध dugdha ‘milk’.

  11. I love etymology so much. Someone give the origin of ‘lord’, please? I’ve lost my OED access since I graduated and though I do remember studying that one in my PIE class it’s been too long….
    Apropos of the ‘corner shop’ name conversation, here in Quebec they are universally referred to as ‘depanneur’ or ‘dep’ by Anglophones and Francophones alike. Depanneur comes from the root ‘panne’ which means broken or busted, to ‘depanne’ means to patch up or fix something, so a ‘depanneur’ is a purveyor of things to help you patch up a situation at the last minute. Like when you run out of milk first thing in the morning before work.

  12. SnowLeopard says

    I suppose دوغ must be the item served to me by an Afghan using the approximate pronunciation “dakh”: a salty, yogurt-based drink flavored with black pepper and bits of cucumber. Her children advised me that the word was a near-homophone for excrement, and to pronounce it carefully.

  13. marie-lucie says

    If I remember correctly, “lord” comes from Old English hlaef-weard “loaf-guard” – the lord guards the loaves that the lady has been kneading.
    The original meaning of “panne” appears to refer to a lack of wind on the sea, hence to the powerless condition of a sailboat when there is no wind. In everyday speech “une panne” is a temporary loss of power or function, as in “une panne d’électricité” = a power outage, or “être en panne” = to have (temporarily) stopped working (as applied to a car or machine).
    In France “un dépanneur” would be a man who comes to the rescue and fixes the problem, but the feminine form “une dépanneuse” is a tow truck, that comes to rescue your car when it is stranded and tow it to a garage.
    In the modern world “être en panne de …” usually refers to one’s temporary shortage of some everyday commodity such as bread, milk, etc. which can be relieved with a quick trip to the nearest store (hence the meaning of “dépanneur” in Québec), or, in the case of money, to the nearest friend whose wallet is fuller.

  14. Wikipedia on دوغ. It’s often carbonated, too, making it kinda like fizzy ਲਸ੍ਸੀ or yoghurty カルピス.
    Pokorny on *dhē(i)- ‘suck’ (AHD) — whence fēmina — and *dheiĝh- ‘knead’ (AHD).

  15. Terry Collmann says

    “It seems a dairy was originally a bakehouse. I wonder how the cheese got in there.”
    Leave a jug of milk in a warm bakehouse and you’ll find out …
    LH, I’m glad to see I’m not the only saddo that suddenly rushes to the etymological dictionary in the middle of a conversation with my wife …

  16. And to bring the girls full circle, dough underlies “spotted dick”, suet pudding with raisins in it that make spots in the dough.

  17. “Cf. also ON. bú-deigja (bú, house, household)”
    Which is clearly the basis for “bodega”…

  18. Terry Collmann says

    “dough underlies “spotted dick”
    Custard usually underlies spotted dick when I have it.
    Or treacle.
    And there’s a word with a great etymology – ultimately from the same root that gave us “feral”.

  19. I’m not certain whether you’re joking, David L., but I have to confess that that’s what I wanted to think too. However, having been taught by present company not to trust such a notion I checked and learned that “bodega” comes from Spanish, and before that from the Latin “apotheca”.
    I just love the idea of “bodega” coming from Old Norse, though. Won’t anyone stand and defend this notion?

  20. David Marjanović says

    Féerie… fée…

  21. “bodega” comes from Spanish, and before that from the Latin “apotheca”.
    Just like French boutique.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Actually the Latin word is from Greek, but you are right about Spanish and French.

  23. Yes, etymologically a bodega is run by an apothecary.

  24. There have been occasions in New York when I’ve wondered whether that were the case.

  25. > I’m not certain whether you’re joking, David L.
    So much for subtlety, I guess I’ll have to give in and use those smileys next time…

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