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Beware the Insidious Honorifics: Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms.

13 Jul
From here.

Did you know that honorifics, seemingly applied equally – and equally respectfully – to men and women, are not, in fact, equal, nor equally respectful?

There’s a very interesting post from, a useful word-nerd web site, on the topic of the etymology of Mr. and Mrs. According to the folks over there, the origins of “Mr./Mister” are as follows:

“Once used to address men under the rank of knighthood, by the mid-18th century mister became a common English honorific to generally address males of a higher social rank.”

Here we see that “Mister” does indeed have its roots in a term of respect (or alternatively, fear and control. Either way, not too bad of a deal for the recipients of the prefix).

On Mrs.:

“Mrs. is a contraction derived from Middle English maistresse, ‘female teacher, governess.’ Once a title of courtesy, mistress fell into disuse around the late 14th century. The pronunciation, however, remained intact. By the 15th century, mistress evolved into a derogatory term for “a kept woman of a married man. … ‘Miss’ also derives from ‘mistress.’ ”

Both “Mrs.” and “Miss” derive from questionably neutral (female teacher, governess – it could be argued that these were servant-class occupations back in the 17th century, hence why neutrality is questionable) and outright negative (kept woman of a married man) origins.

So while the use of the term “Mr.” is straightforward, the use of any honorific for a female is not. Even the use of the quasi-neutral phrase “Ms.” has alienating potential in certain fundamentalist/antifeminist circles. Nowadays, “Mrs.” simply means “married.” Which is pretty darn problematic in and of itself – defining women by their marital status, but not men, is so far beyond the pale of how modern society should be functioning that writing more on the topic seems redundant – it’s why “Ms.” was coined.

Sure, maybe it’s just a question of semantics – and I’ll admit I’m overly sensitive to such things – I do, after all, cringe every time someone abuses an adverb (“Eat Local”?!? No, it’s eat locally! If you’re going to be snobby about your food, you may as well be snobby about your grammar as well. Sheesh.) and have to bite my tongue when I overhear someone saying “There is five options …”

But I’d argue that the use of honorifics of any sort is damaging not only to women, but to society in general. Look closer and you’ll see they’re more insidious than simple grammatical gaffery. The use (or conspicuous lack of use) of honorifics is a way to editorialize – just like the use of modifying words like said/claim. Extreme case in point? The NY Times stopped using “Mr. bin Laden,” switching to just “Bin Laden” at some point, but kept the honorifics for everyone else. Although no one will argue that criminals ought to be accorded extra social niceties, it’s easy to see how the subtle drop of an honorific prefix could be used as a lexocological weapon.

It remains interesting to me that the New York Times continues to insist on using honorifics – with notable exceptions. Gender-neutral outs exist only for people with Ph.Ds and religious credentials, which is yet another way to subtly reinforce class striation from within the confines of the printed word.

What do you think – does being called Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms or ma’am/sir connote old-fashioned respect or outdated snobbery? Is this type of thing done in other countries outside the US?

Read the full post here.

Father’s Day Special

19 Jun

Looks like the Wall Street Journal – always a conservative rag anyway – is starting to show its Murdoch underbelly. For Father’s Day, the WSJ’s Sue Shellenbarger brings us an article telling us all about why men make better parents than women. In fact, she proves with science (science!) that men are simply better people than women! Peep this quote:

“Under stress, men’s brains are wired to … leap into action. Women are more likely to withdraw or shut down.”

via the WSJ

The article goes on to gush about how fathers’ disinterest in their children helps kids to grow up awesome, while mothers’ damn mothering turns kids into whinging, weakly brats. There’s even a cheesy full-color illustrations in which men are shown heroically sweeping in to save the day while mothers, offscreen, according to the unattributed cutlines, withdraw, shut down or otherwise over- or misreact, turning the unsuspecting children into balls of exposed nerves. The author throws a bone to the ladies by stating, repeatedly, that moms are darn good at teaching their squalling brats to “express their feelings” and “talk through their emotions.”

But wait! There’s more: “Because fathers have had to learn to manage their own impulses to strike out or react physically to frustration, they may be better equipped than mothers to help children manage their own urges to behave badly.”

Oh right. Because women never learned to manage their own impulses to strike out or react physically to frustration – we’re just born meek and feminine of course! The last little bit of conservative trope? Why, it’s that single mothers are ruining everything:

“Another reason involved fathers help kids, of course, is that families often function better when two parents are working as a team to give children what they need, supporting each other’s efforts.” Oh of course! How could we forget? Although it’s hard to see the logic in this conclusion, since the article’s assumptions are really building up to the conclusion that fathers should do all the parenting themselves, since they’re so great – actually, it would be best if all children were raised in two-father households, not one-father, one-mother households. But then we’d have to support gay marriage, wouldn’t we? Oh dear. Now we’re just confused!

If you want to read the whole Father’s Day Wall Street Journal piece, feel free.

Media: Find a new dead horse

18 Dec

If you hang out long enough with lefties, eventually someone will repeat an old saw as if it were a new blade: The Evils of Media Consolidation. This memetic concept has spawned a whole cottage industry of conspiracy theorist-journalists, infographics and vitriolic discussions, both off and online.

Self-styled investigative journalists write their pieces about media consolidation as if they were the first to discover – horror of horrors – that an entire industry is run by only a handful of corporate giants. They are, of course, telling us this tale for the VERY FIRST TIME, and we should all be shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you! not to mention appalled, that we’re being spoon-fed drivel that turns our minds into oatmeal by Evil Men in Grey Flannel Suits. They lurk in the shadows, forcing Sarah Palin news upon the unsuspecting populace, and using man-bites-dog-stories to cover up What’s Really Happening.

If only media and news were the ONLY industries run this way. You better believe that every industry that reaches any point of maturation will consolidate. Central management allows for reduced operating costs – and it’s join or die for most companies, media or not.

Let’s make a cool infographic like this that shows how
class mobility is a lie your parents told you.

So OK. We get it. The media is owned by a very small number of corporations, and the variation we think we’re getting with six gazilion channels and 7 trillion newspapers and 800 bajillion news blogs isn’t actually that varied. But it’s time to stop blaming corporate consolidation (at least, stop blaming it solely) for the  monochromatic messages. Culture itself, not just corporate ownership, plays a pretty big part in media influence.

Think about it: We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of information workers, here – all with their own backgrounds and worldviews – work for tiny tiny subsidiaries and focus on itsy bitsy niche topic areas and interest groups. Not every single reporter is hell-bent on serving his or her corporate overlords, peddling the Faux News message and pulling the wool over the eyes of Joe America. At least not any more than your average every day Joe is hell-bent on achieving those same goals by parroting Faux News talking points, or mindlessly perpetuating the patriarchy.

Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model says that the internalization of the biases and values of corporate owners of the media leads to self-censorship by journalists, but that’s not the whole truth. It’s not just reporters and editors submitting to the wills of their corporate overlords – it’s all of us. We have all, to some degree, internalized the values of corporate owners – whether we work for the media or not. Journalists fall prey to systemic and cognitive biases no more and no less than your average accountant, pro athlete or sous chef.

Yes, corporate consolidation is a problem (as it is in many other industries). But so is our culture – the one that’s built several gajilion support structures to ensure the propagation of a ruling class and dominant culture. Media is just one column supporting a monolithic superstructure that includes patriarchy, capitalism, nuclear families, the legal system, class hierarchies, office jobs and deep-fried Oreos.

Money should be transparent, not invisible

1 Dec
… and other nice ideas.

How do you know that your employer is paying you fairly? Please, take a minute to ponder this question. Go on, think about it.

Maybe you’re in a trade union, and your union negotiates set payscales and annual raises for you during meetings that are held publicly. Or maybe you work for a very large public corporation that determines comporatios using a fancy algorhthym (making sure to adjust down by ~20 percent for females, people of color, and people with disabilities, naturally). But if you’re anything like the vast majority of workers in the United States, the amount you are paid for the work that you do is determined through a process that is both opaque and sinister.

Look! It’s a plane! It’s a bird!
It’s a bell curve!

This process is so opaque, in fact, that you may need to use a web site like to find out if you are even in the ballpark of what others in your field are paid. You don’t know what your colleagues are paid, and what’s more, you can be punished if you ask – professionally and socially. What’s worse, your colleague can be fired if he or she has the audacity to answer you truthfully.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Your employers have a vested interested in keeping you as in-the-dark as possible as to what’s a fair rate for the work you do. A well-informed employee is difficult to manipulate, and certainly difficult to underpay. Fortune, in this case, favors those with the power to keep secrets. If Susan learns that Bob is paid $15,000 more per year than she is to do the same work, it suddenly becomes very difficult to motivate Susan to work hard without shelling out some cash. And so in most HR handbooks in the US, you’ll find a clause that prohibits discussing compensation packages with coworkers.

Are you being paid in salted legumes?

Meanwhile, corporations are blithely exercising their right to investigate employees’ (and even potential employees’) salary history. Many will ask for your compensation history as part of the job application process. Those that don’t can demand to see last year’s W-2s. But ask how much the last person in the position you’re applying for made, and suddenly you’re on thin ice. Ask your supervisor his or her salary, and you’re in hot water. Try it with a colleague, and you’re a pariah.

When it comes to salaries, corporations and society in general are ignoring a golden rule: Open and honest discourse, along with the free flow of information, is good. Sure, the purging process can get ugly (WikiLeaks. Watergate. Whatever.), but secrecy solves nothing.

It’s time for us to admit that it’s not always hard work or talent or creativity that lands employees raises and promotions. Often, it can be completely random, or informed by nepotism, or malice. On the whole, employers simply pay people as little as they think they can get away with – rewarding cocky employees or savvy negotiators while punishing more quietly effective ones. 

I’m not advocating the violent overthrow of the government here, but I am advocating something that will probably shock people around you. Just try following these simple steps next time you’re at a cocktail party:

“OMG, ferserious you guys,
that crazy chick so totally just asked
 me how much I make a year.”

1. Ask someone point-blank how much money they make.
2. Watch them sputter in shock.
3. Observe as other guests within earshot shoot you nasty looks.
4. Ask again.
5. Wait for someone to try to take your keys away, because clearly you are too drunk to drive home.

It’s funny, kind of. But mostly it’s just sick and twisted. We can easily find ourselves in deep conversation about the things that surround money – the type of cars people drive, the neighborhoods our houses are in, the schools we send our bratlings to. But the minute you ask someone to put a concrete figure on exactly what it is that enables their lifestyle, bit it Bimmer or Wheelbarrow, you’re an antisocial little freak.

So join me in my awkwardly-talking-about-money-revolution. Follow the five steps above, and please, let me know how it goes.

One word can make a difference

11 Nov

A recent NYTimes piece by Karen Zraick brought iHollaback, a nifty web site that now has its very own smartphone apps for the low low price of whatever it is those things cost these days, to my attention. According to the story, iHollaback “is a Web site that encourages women to post their accounts of harassment and abuse as part of a campaign to end practices that are seldom discussed but that many women say are pervasive.”

What’s interesting about this article, other than iHollaback itself, which satisfies an obvious need and looks kind of fun (if anything related to street harassment can be fun), is the way Zraick chose to phrase the above sentence. But before we get into that, a little background:

Journalists understand the power of words. Particularly words like “say,” “claim” and “allege.” At first blush these words look like nothing more than synonyms for “speak.” But seasoned professionals have the ability to wield them in ways that can slant a story without making it seem slanted at all – many may even do it completely unconsciously.

Any of the aforementioned words, when used as modifiers for a statement that, alone, would be taken at face value, have immense power. With that in mind, take a look at the article excerpt again:

“[iHollaback] is a Web site that encourages women to post their accounts of harassment and abuse as part of a campaign to end practices that are seldom discussed but that many women say are pervasive.” (emphasis mine)

Use these infinitive-prefacing verbs sparingly.

Note the difference in the way the two assertions in the sentence are presented. The practice of harassment lacks a “says/alleges/claims” modifier: “practices are seldom discussed.” This leads the reader to take it as an empirically verifiable fact. In contrast, harassment’s pervasiveness requires a modifier: “many women say the practice is pervasive.” Here’s a clue that the author doesn’t think this fact is supported by any evidence other than the claims of a party, in this case “many women.”

There are two main flaws with this syntax and its implications. Firstly, these “practices are seldom discussed.” Says who? Was there a study? I don’t know about you, but I discuss these practices all the time. I’m not refuting the statement – in mainstream Amerikuh, I don’t doubt that street harassment, and women’s rights in general, come up in conversation with disturbing infrequency, but it’s in no way more well-supported than the second statement.

Secondly, the subject matter of the article itself would suggest that the second statement does not require a “says” modifier. iHollaback is a Web site that sprung up to address a practice that is so pervasive that the site has regional and global variations, viral participation, at least one bajillion press mentions, an iPhone app and an Android app in development. This should be enough to, if not present pervasive street harassment as an irrefutable fact, at least qualify the statement for a modifier bye.

Modifiers are equally powerful when included or omitted, serving the opposite purposes of discrediting when included, and supporting when omitted. Thus, they can be used strategically to make a point. By modifying “these practices are pervasive” with “says” but not doing so with the previous statement, the author skewed the “truthiness” playing field – leaving readers to assume that while harassment is certainly rarely discussed, it may not actually be as common as “some women” would lead you to believe.

While this may be considered nitpicking, it’s important to realize that these people are professionals – they understand the impact a single word can have, and so choose (or should choose) them carefully. Journalists are the gatekeepers of information, and the filter through which millions of people see the world. One word can make a difference.

Top ten reasons to work in journalism

19 Aug

10. The Swearing

Only in a newsroom does one get congratulated by one’s boss for using the word “fuck” during a meeting.

9. The Drinking

Newsies can drink average humans under a mesa, and newsrooms have lots of good places to nurse a hangover: Decommissioned darkrooms, for one, are cool, dark and private, and often have couches for reasons that will remain unexplored here.

8. The Sarcasm

The Fake AP Stylebook. Overheard in the Newsroom. This stuff doesn’t write itself, people. We started the whole sarcasm/irony trend before those hipsters co-opted it, and journalists remain sarcastic, lovable assholes to this day.

7. The Liberals

There’s something sweetly safe in knowing that most of your coworkers are, like you, bleeding-heart liberals.*

6. The Misanthropy

Newsroom humor, like emergency room humor, is dark. It comes from a place of finely tuned cynicism, and grants its practitioners the permission to wield dry, cutting wit at the expense of the rabble with nary a thought to the politically correct.

5. Sportswriting

I don’t like sports (except boxing, ‘course), but I love sportswriting. Oh, the action verbs! The wordplay! The ability to experiment with nigh-obscenity due to the sports’ section placement deeep inside the paper!

4. Sportswriters

For some inexplicable reason, I get along famously with sportswriters. I don’t understand their interests, but you have to love a person who can conduct an interview with a high school softball star, hammer out a lead story, and design a front page all while drinking a 40 of 211 out of a MegaGulp cup and keeping an eye on “Striptease,” streaming on the laptop brought from home.

3.The camaraderie

There’s nothing like being on a sinking ship to bring on that tingly “sense of brotherhood” feeling.

2. Schadenfreude

As a journalist, you get to be secretly, or not-so-secretly pleased when disaster strikes other people’s lives. All the better if it strikes on your news cycle. You get to say things like, “Way to die on deadline, Reagan,” or “I need to see the carnage! Find me a shot of the carnage.”

1. Grammar jokes

If this isn’t good enough reason for you, you’re probably a business analyst anyway.

* Yep, it’s true, we media types really are damn dirty pinko Jesus-hating fags. Or rather, journalists tend to have more education than the general population, and therefore wind up more liberal than the majority. Take unsubstantiated theory any way you want.

Five ways to save time. For realsies.

11 Aug

I have a confession: I subscribe to Real Simple. There are several reasons I should not do so, the most readily apparent of which is that the very title of the publication flies in the face of one of my raison d’etres, namely, defending the integrity of the English language. Seriously, Real Simple? You couldn’t call it “Real. Simple.” instead? Just two little periods, or even one of those funny lookin’ pipe | thingies could do your rag a world of good. But no, you had to abuse an adverb, just like the “Eat Local” army. Fine. Whatever. I’ll eat delicious food that grows locally while you sit down to a four course meal of intangible adjective.

Along with syrupy prose contributed by its college-educated female readership who’ve chosen to stay home with the bratlings and wax poetic about cheese sandwiches or whatever, one of the magazine’s regular features is lists upon lists of time-saving tips. The tips are often pitched with a Pollyanna-esque, “If you can do your makeup in only 30 minutes, you’ll have more time for YOU!” What, pray tell, would a woman who spends more than 30 minutes on hair every day do with that extra time? Spend more time on lipliner? My advice to them would be: Stop doing your hair. Voila! 100 percent more time for you!

So in the spirit of mean-spiritedness, and since Real Simple won’t be informing its readership how to actually get more time for themselves anytime soon, leastwise without plugging a $40 bottle of face cream and reinforcing some serious heteronormativity and serving as capitalism’s and classism’s little glossy handmaiden, I came up with some more realistic time-saving tips for the less credulous among us. Written for the typical Real Simple reader, who, I imagine, is female, at least 30, white, upper-middle, with a husband, 2.5 kids, a dog and a picket fence:

1. Ditch the Hubbie
Ever get snippy with your doting spouse? It may not be the stress of planning all those complex dinner parties and thoughtful holiday gifts — he’s probably just using up nearly half of your special you time! He always wants to talk, wants to cuddle, wants to put it in your butt. Those things take time, my friend — get rid of the geezer and you’ll automatically gain plus-10 you-time points!

2. Don’t have kids.
Seriously, ladies, did you know it’s actually illegal for you to leave these little time-sucks alone for up to TWELVE YEARS? You don’t want to spend the best years of your adulthood in drudgery, watching insipid childrens’ television, cleaning up excrement and/or Cheerios, and trying not to shake your offspring to death, do you? If you’re unfortunate enough to already have one of these, take heart: In Nebraska, you can abandon your children no matter how old they get!

3. Live in a van.
Garden got you down? Lawn putting you to shame? Garage organization projects keeping you up at night? How much time do you really spend weeding, whitewashing, mopping and coming up with innovative storage solutions for all your crap? Sell it all and move into your suburban assault vehicle. Cleaning a small space is a snap, and entertaining’s out without an outdoor dining set.

4. Quit your job.
Forget the Pomodoro Technique. It doesn’t matter how much you prioritize, how many 100-calorie snack packs you stash in your desk drawer or how many green tea breaks you take, you will never, ever be caught up at work. Instead, quit. Live off all that money you’re making by contributing syrupy prose to milquetoast organizing magazines.

5. Get ugly.
Without a husband or a job, why bother spending even that measly 30 minutes blow-drying and heat setting your hair? Come to think of it, you probably can’t afford that $40 face cream, and there’s no outlet for a blow dryer in a van. But, now that you’re ugly, poor, unmarried and childless, you probably finally have enough time to sit down and read Real Simple cover to cover, and realize it actually only takes 10 minutes to blow through the whole thing, ads included.




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