Miss Manners: Titles of nobility are source of confusion

March 5, 2013

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Why, upon marriage, were Camilla Parker Bowles and Catherine Middleton styled the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge, rather than “Princess Camilla” or “Princess Catherine”?

GENTLE READER: You would have to ask the British queen, who bestowed those titles. The general belief is that the public would have resented a new Princess of Wales after the death of the previous one. And perhaps it would not have been politic to give the latest member of the family a higher title than that lady’s stepmother-in-law.

But under no circumstances would they have been “Princess Camilla” or “Princess Catherine.” And although the late Princess of Wales was widely referred to as “Princess Diana,” that was incorrect; correctly, she was Diana, Princess of Wales.

This is because the British system makes a distinction between birth and marriage as a way of acquiring titles. With the exception of a queen consort, the title precedes the given name only when inherited. Thus, the late Princess of Wales was, before her marriage, Lady Diana, as her father was an earl. But of course that is a title of nobility, not royalty, and a courtesy title at that. Under the primogeniture system, the children of a living noble have only courtesy titles because they are commoners.

Got that? Glad you live in a republic, so you don’t have to know these things?

Oh, wait, Miss Manners realizes that you probably do, because you’ve been watching “Downton Abbey.”

The mother in that series, born an American, is Cora, Countess of Grantham, or Cora Crawley, the family surname, or Lady Grantham, but never “Lady Cora.” Her daughters, however, all have “Lady” before their first names because their father is an earl. But remember: That is a courtesy title, and they are commoners. So they could, if the series lasts long enough, stand for election to the House of Commons.

No, that is not a spoiler. Miss Manners has no idea what is happening to these characters. She tuned out when she saw them wearing their gloves to dinner in their own house.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: We’ve all been told “it’s not polite to stare.” But with the recent explosion of tattoos and body art on anybody and everybody, I’m wondering if that’s still the case.

Since most of the painted ladies (and men) have put lots of money into their backs, arms, calves, ankles, etc., is it now rude not to stare? If I felt that strongly about something that I would invest money and endure significant pain to display it on my body, I’d feel bad if people didn’t spend time examining me closely.

GENTLE READER: Your reasoning troubles Miss Manners. If you had put huge amounts of money and endured great pain to have a hip replacement, would that make it polite for people to stare at that area of your body?

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I received an invitation seven days before a wedding. With it was a request for money to help pay for the honeymoon in Bali. I barely know the person.

GENTLE READER: And you are not moved to want to send the couple on an expensive trip? How can you be so hard-hearted?

Miss Manners can only hope that this is because you have worthier outlets for philanthropy.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

, by Judith Martin

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