Friday, 24 February 2012

What's in a title ?

Something on the BBC breakfast this morning about the use of Miss / Mrs /Ms. 

It comes in the wake of the campaign in France to replace ‘Mademoiselle’ with a universal ‘Madam’ for all women. Given that ‘Mademoiselle’ translates as ‘little lady’ you can see that you don’t have to be a Feminist to find the title pretty patronising.

And having been filling in more than my share of application forms over the past few moths I have been struck at how odd this obsession with ‘titles’ is. It’s the first question on most forms – yet it’s something that in the normal circumstances no sane person gives much thought to.

Like many things that are dismissed as mere ‘political correctness’, there are actually solid historical grounds for deeming them reactionary and out of place. 

As far as women are concerned the Miss/Mrs/Ms thing is quite straightforward. For centuries to be taken seriously as independent peorson a woman needed a badge of  a man’s endorsement. There were wealthy and influential merchant women even in the Middle Ages – but invariably they were widows. In a later age there was the category of ‘honorary Mrs’ for independent women.  Landladies, housekeepers and cooks were powerful players in the domestic-service hierarchy  - the fictional ‘Mrs Bridges’ of Upstairs Downstairs or ‘Mrs Hudson’ of Sherlock Holmes were not actually married, but required the gravitas bestowed by the title. And in a bizarre twist on the same rationale, lecherous toffs from Charles II to Edward VII would only take married mistresses – even to the extent of finding husbands for the objects of their desire.

When it comes to men, assuming you are not a Duke or Earl, then social implications of titles is a bit more nuanced. In some circles the use of ‘Mr’ is still reserved as a means by which a gentleman can patronize members of the working and. lower-middle class. ‘Mr’ is a tag attached to ‘tradesman’ – a gentleman will refer to his own social equals by a first name, or if he is particularly old-school, by his surname.  In the army it is institutionalised so that the use of ‘Mr’ is reserved for a particular category of senior NCOs’ – a group very much of officers BUT not gentlemen. And if that all seems like archaic pedantry – in the modern world of business the use of first names is just about universal – except as  a subtle way of patronising  builders and other workmen.

So here’s a radical thought – why don’t we just do away with titles altogether? They just perpetuate inequality and provide a crutch for the seriously insecure.

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