Will honorifics like Mr., Mrs. and Ms. ever disappear?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they are talking about. Today we wondered, how long do gendered titles have?
On June 5, 2015, The New York Times published a story entitled “Me, Myself and Mx.” featuring the trans performer Justin Vivian Bond. No doubt this was many readers’ introduction to the gender-neutral title Mx (pronounced “mix”) which was subsequently added to the Oxford English Dictionary and defined as “a title used before a person’s surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female.” It should have come as little surprise then that, in a story published last month, the Times quietly made its first formal use of the honorific now vying for an equal place alongside more common examples such as Mr., Mrs., Ms. and the increasingly shunned Miss.
While the list of commonly recognized titles grows, a shift away from traditional norms concerning “formality” and “respect" is gaining momentum in the United States and increasingly elsewhere. Tech companies, with offices containing slides and nap rooms, that profess an inclusive and non-hierarchical structure and attitude—and the thousands of people from younger generations they attract—have no doubt played a significant role in a growing distaste (or lack of awareness entirely) for using any honorifics whatsoever, in reference to themselves or others. But will they fall out of use, or will the field evolve to include still other, and more nuanced, terms?
We turned to a group of experts to determine in which direction the English language may be turning.
Professor of Law and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Wake Forest University
An answer to the question of whether honorifics might disappear from English is one that is bound up in English and American understandings of class and social status. We former colonists are, on the whole, a rather insecure people, and that insecurity is apparent in the obsession we have with forms of address. I think this is true because our understanding of society has never been about merit, protestations about “the American dream” to the contrary notwithstanding.
Our forebears had the aristocracy, wherein social position was due entirely to an accident of birth. And even though titles of nobility were prohibited by the American constitution, new “society” was no less random at its root. If you were born white and moneyed, you were likely to be “Miss Scarlett,” for example. If you were born black and working class, you were more often than not just “girl” or “boy,” as the case may be. I think this is a primary explanation for the preoccupation many working class blacks still have for not being “called out of my name.” I knew the late poet Maya Angelou for over a decade. Angelou was born black and poor in the Jim Crow South. We were friends and colleagues and neighbors. As long as I knew her, she always referred to her students as Mr. or Ms. so-and so, never by a first name. The same was true of all but her inner circle. She referred to me, even in intimate company, as Dr. Gilreath, and I reciprocated always with Dr. Angelou, although I found the affected formality rather silly. My observation is that the convention is, while less absolute, certainly present among working class whites as well.
So an investment in the faux title is built in the system, from the top down, for each rung of what etiquette books rather stiltedly still refer to as “society.” It seems that it never occurred to feminists, who were intent on combatting sexism, and racism, and classism, and every other –ism, to destabilize this latent but entrenched vestige of class hierarchy too. The best they gave us was “Ms.” I’m reminded that Idi Amin, who claimed to be the conqueror of the British in Africa, as ruler of Uganda added various random collections of letters after his name in an effort to copy the various (and unattainable) appellations of the British upper classes. I suppose every revolution has its limits.
It is true that the French have been batting around the managed extinction of mademoiselle (mlle.) for some time now, perhaps because class hierarchy has been more effectively dismantled in France. Still, the French have only the idea of fewer honorifics to show for it (and I had a late French friend who never tired of explaining to me how she was a relation of the Bourbons). In English, at least, the trend seems to be toward more honorifics, with the addition to the Oxford dictionary of “Mx.” –an honorific, which I have endorsed, to use for those who prefer to shirk the shackles of gender conformity (but apparently not class conformity). Since among “polite society” it is still technically improper to address a card or note to a male child using the honorific “Mr.” (“master” is technically correct), one is left to marvel at the explosion of possibilities the new language of gender may provide in years to come. s/ Dr. Mr. Mx. Shannon Gilreath, Esq.
Lexicographer and founder of wordnik.com
It's entirely possible that English honorifics will become even more vestigial than they are now, relegated to formal or legal documents and hanging out with other quaintnesses such as 'esquire' and 'spinster'. Of course, this also assumes that we'll find other ways to signal politeness and a difference in status between the addresser and the addressee. It's likely that honorifics based on personal characteristics (gender, marital status) will be used less and less (especially by younger people), and eventually will be replaced by gender-neutral versions. (It's too much to hope for a revival of the archaic 'gentle' as a polite form of address!)
Professor of Psychology and Management & Organizations at Northwestern University
The use of honorific titles raises political issues in contemporary society because they distinguish people needlessly on the basic of marital status (Miss, Mrs.) and gender (Mr. Ms.). Given that people often prefer not to be so identified, these tiles carry excess meaning. There are two ultimate solutions, one is to use Mx. for everyone, and the other is to do away with titles entirely. No such solutions can be imposed, but they may be gradually implemented through ordinary social processes of communication, conformity, and norm formation. Already at least in the United States, Mrs. seems old-fashioned, and there is a general movement toward Ms. Mx. is not normative but it is somewhere on the horizon, evidently even in the New York Times. As far as doing away with titles is concerned, that movement is well underway as well. At least in the United States, people move quickly to use first names, thereby avoiding honorifics entirely. I thus argue that the political challenges of traditional English honorific titles are being solved through collective processes that result in more inclusive honorific titles and avoiding them entirely in most social contexts.
The website for the British clothier Boden allows customers to register using 52 titles. Among the choices are Field Marshal Lord, Prince, Dame and Viscountess.
Professor in Lexicography at the University of Wolverhampton; Visiting Professor and Lead Researcher at Bristol Centre for Linguistics, University of West of England
Back in the 1960s, I lived for a short time in Berlin, where I learned to speak some German. Like all European languages, German used a system of honorifics for addressing people: Herr for men and Frau for women. A further distinction was made between Frau for a married woman and Fräulein for one who was unmarried. At that time, a similar distinction was made in English: married women were addressed as Mrs, while unmarried women were Miss.
In 2003 I found myself back in Berlin at the invitation of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. One of the striking changes after a 40-year absence was that all the Fräuleins had disappeared. Even squitty little schoolgirls working in shops—surely not married—were wearing ID badges saying “Frau Schmidt”. The German word Frau had acquired a meaning similar to the English honorific Ms. Such changes can be attributed to the rise of feminism: “My marital status is none of your damned business.” Recently, the New York Times ran a story using the gender-neutral Mx, implying, I suppose, “My gender is none of your damned business.”
The English-speaking word has gone further. Honorifics in general are out of favor (except among the aristocracy, but they are something else). I am old enough to still experience a frisson of surprise when, as regularly happens, I receive an e-mail from a complete stranger addressing me as “Dear Patrick”—or rather, “Hi Patrick”, for the false endearment is also going out of fashion.
As a child in Britain in the 1950s, I used to receive letters addressed to “Master Patrick Hanks”. Master was an age-determined honorific, a sort of masculine equivalent of Miss. Even then I found it somewhat demeaning. As a child of the bourgeoisie, I yearned for the day when I would be addressed—not as “Mr. Patrick Hanks”, for that would have been lower class—but as “Patrick Hanks, Esq.” In Britain, Esquire at that time was a postnominal honorific identifying the addressee as a middle-class snob. Mercifully, it too has gone, except among lawyers. But here too, something strange is going on. Visiting Brits in the United States are astonished to find that, among Americans, Esquire is a gender-neutral honorific used for attorneys. Ms Carina Canaan is now Carina Canaan, Esquire.
Even in France, there is talk of abolishing Mlle. However, pockets of resistance persist. There seems to be little chance that an Italian professor or doctor, if female, will escape being a professoressa or dottoressa any time soon. In the Italian language gender ID is de riguer. And German academics, among whom there is no notion of a short cut, still insist on being addressed with a full array of honorifics (including a Herr and no less than two Doktors if the bearer has been clever enough to acquire a habilitation): Herr Professor Dr. Dr. Wolfgang Schmidt; Frau Professor Dr. Dr. Helga Lietz.
Henry Ansgar (Andy) Kelly, PhD
Distinguished Research Professor, English Department UCLA
Personal forms of address, like “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” are misleadingly called “honorifics.” Originally, perhaps, they were marks of honor, when “mister” meant “master” and “missus” meant “mistress.” But now they apply to everyone as ID markers, whether of high or low standing. And other forms of address, like “Dr.” or “Prof.,” usually indicate earned degrees or actual positions. It would be gauche for someone with a merely honorary doctorate to be called “doctor” or, especially, to insist on being called “doctor.”
“Doctor” and “professor” in English are ungendered, which is not true in some other languages. In Italian, every man with a good bachelor’s degree is a dottore, while a woman is a dottoressa (and the wife of a dottore is a dottora). In German, the man is “Herr Professor” while the female professor (or professor’s wife) is “Frau Professor.”
Not long ago there was a movement to do away with the convention of identifying women as married or unmarried, “Mrs.” or “Miss,” by coming up with “Ms.” More recently there is the suggestion that, since it’s nobody’s business whether a person is male or female, both “Ms.” and “Mr.” be jettisoned in favor of the title “Mx.” I don’t see much future for this movement, for several reasons. First, it looks and sounds as if one is claiming to be a “mixture” of sexes, or a person in the midst of changing sex. Second, there is not much call for disguising one’s gender. And third, there are better ways of doing it.
Usually, your full name is a dead giveaway: George Jones, Marilyn Johnson (though admittedly not Marilyn Manson, but he’s an oddity). Those who have forenames that are not obviously gendered, like Blair and Jamie, are, of course problematic, but it’s usually in the interests of the holder to indicate gender. The easiest way is to mark the box provided, to prevent being addressed in the wrong way.
Historically, when a woman did not want it known that she was a woman, she could resort, if appropriate, to academic or military titles, where no distinction of gender is indicated. This works also when a suffixed degree is used instead of title: “Madison Martin, M.D.,” and even “ Lindsey Smith, Esq.,” now that “esquire” has been taken to signify any lawyer, whether male or female. A standard tactic has been to use initials, especially when publishing articles or books: e.g., “J. K. Rowling.”
What to do when you don’t know the gender of someone you are writing to? That is less of a problem nowadays, since it has become very common to send letters and emails and birthday cards, etc., without any title for the addressees.
This is part of a general tendency to downplay titles. In newspaper or magazine articles, for example, it is standard practice, after the initial identification of a person (“Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state”) to use the simple surname: “Clinton confirmed the report.” The New York Times is exceptional in always referring to “Mrs. Clinton” (if not “Secretary Clinton”) or “Mr. Putin,” etc.
In America, there also seems to be a tendency to downplay degree titles other than medical degrees. It is all right for you to put “M.D.” after your name, but not “Ph.D.” If you want people to know you have a Ph.D., it shows better taste to get a friend to write the preface to your book and reveal your degree in the course of it; and it is a sign of laudable humility not to go by “Doctor.” The title of “Doctor” is completely off bounds for lawyers who hold the J.D. (Juris Doctor); they must be content to stick with “Esquire.”