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 dictionary.com, 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).
“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 Dictionary.com post here.