John Larrysson Column: Married maids

Maid Marion is an important person in the story Robin Hood. She has never cleaned a floor. She does not wash Robin Hood's clothes. And she is not a domestic helper. The original meaning of maid is "a girl or young woman who is not married or has not done yucky biological baby-making things". In most English speaking countries, the word maid has two meanings. The first meaning has been lost in Hong Kong English. The second meaning is a type of servant.

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Where does this second meaning come from? Long ago, rich people often liked to have servants clean their houses. They wanted a young woman who was not married, so she would work only for them. A woman who had to hurry away to take care of her own children and husband might get less work done for her employer. Children and husbands can be a lot of work. So maids, being unmarried women, were hired to be servants. Eventually the meanings mixed, a servant who is a maid was defined by her job as a maid. So today people around the world use the word maid to mean a woman whose job is to clean a house, wash clothes and do many light chores around the house.

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However the word maid is normally used for a person who does these limited chores. In Hong Kong this meaning has been modernized and changed. A Hong Kong maid does all the house work, the shopping and takes care of the children. So a Hong Kong maid has become a second mother-figure rather than just an unmarried young female house cleaner. A Hong Kong maid might even be married and have children back in the Philippines or some other such country. So the new Hong Kong meaning for maid has become a foreign woman who is a second-mother. One part of the original meaning of maid remains in Hong Kong; maids cannot be men, married or single.

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Does this mean Hong Kong's use of the word maid is wrong? No, the English language is very flexible. Unlike in some other languages, there is no central authority that can decide if a word is right or wrong. The Hong Kong use of the word maid is in A Dictionary of Hong Kong English, Words from the Fragrant Harbour. Just understand that in the British English story of Robin Hood, Maid Marion does not clean windows. Also in Hong Kong English one should not refer to all unmarried women as maids.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.