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April 13, 2006


When my grandmother, who was as comfortable with English as with French, was put into a nursing home in Laval several years ago, the staff insisted on calling her by madame and her maiden name. Apparently, this is common practice, but she hadn't been called by her maiden name since she had been a mademoiselle. She was offended that the staff attached madame to her youthful maiden name!

Thanks, Nicole - what a good story!

I've always used Ms but never liked it - it always sounded to me like "mis" /misery. But what's the alternative for women if you don't wish to be primarily identified via your marital status? I've never understood/liked titles - why not just drop them altogether? I agree, Beth, why not a simple 'hello'?

Mademoiselle should have been abandonned a long time ago. It's a bit of an old fight and in fact, I thought no one used mademoiselle anymore. Madame should become the neutral term. This way, no one (*ahem*) would start freaking out when they'd reach the age where clercks in their twenties start calling them "madame"...

English in my neck of the woods, western Oregon, has dropped titles from speech almost entirely. I get mistered on snail mail, but I don't even remember the last time someone actually addressed me a mister here. (The only lingering title I can think of is an occasional "Dr," strictly for physicians.) I remember being startled when I went to the East Coast in the 80's and found that many people actually still used titles in speech. Not just Mr and Mrs and Miss, but also Dr and Professor and Officer. It seemed quaint to me, and so awkward in my own mouth that I just avoided it. I don't know what it's like there now.

In some ways it strikes me as a loss. It frees you from having to decide how to handle some sexist language, of course, but it seems very valuable to me to mark people's status with a different way of naming. It makes deep sense to me to address someone differently after they've crossed into adulthood or into parenthood or into various other positions of authority -- reminds the speakers of the respect due to them and reminds the people addressed of their responsibilities. Most societies for most of history have done something of that sort. Of course, what people will mark will always be what feels most significant to them -- which may not be what we wish felt most significant to them :-)

But to the matter at hand -- I take a dim view of trying to engineer language (by inserting new titles or making up new rules), so I think your solution, Beth, is far the best. Just drop the titles. People already do that in ordinary speech, so you're not making up anything new.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.