Yo, Woman! This Your Parasol?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

How can you get the attention of someone whose name is unknown to you?

Let us say, for example, that a stranger has accidentally dropped something that you, as a helpful and honest citizen, wish to restore to its proper owner. Yet the stranger, unaware of the loss, is sauntering down the street.

Do you shout "Miss!"?

Not if you have had the experience of so addressing a lady who replied indignantly that she was married. One Gentle Reader went so far as to ask whether the clerk who called her this meant to imply that her young children were illegitimate.

Or, if the stranger is male, "Sir!"?

Not if you have been reprimanded for using that term by someone who angrily accused you of making him feel old. Some will explain coldly that this should be used only to their even more elderly fathers.

So -- one by one, we have condemned the respectful terms by which we address others. Although Miss Manners notices that this is always done with the argument that the terms constitute a subtle form of rudeness, they are attacked with such blatant rudeness as to make the polite fearful of using them.

"Sir" and "ma'am" are spurned as insults by adults who hope to pass as youths. The preposterous part is that they attempt to do this to genuine youths. Do they expect gently reared children who have been taught to respect their elders to slap their foreheads and say, "Oops, my mistake! How could I have thought you were older than I am?"

Meanwhile, the terms for addressing youths, "young lady" and "young man," are useless for opposite reasons. The young person with the exposed and ringed midriff understandably does not recognize herself in the term "lady," while the not-quite-parallel male term is taken as patronizing.

The reintroduction of "Ms.," the centuries-old abbreviation for "mistress," was supposed to eliminate the nuisance of determining whether the lady was married, which burdened "Miss" and "Mrs.," the other honorifics derived from "Mistress."

Instead, "Ms." created even more consternation, while the permissiveness of letting ladies choose their own titles only spurred them to try to enforce their choices on others. Grandmothers were lectured that they could no longer use their husbands' names, while brides were scolded for not doing so.

And don't you wonder why the terms of female respect, "Mistress" and "Madam," picked up dirty meanings while the male equivalents, "Mister" and "Sir," retain their dignity? Even slangy terms to address men, such as "man" and "dude," have more dignity than such unfortunately-not-dead ones for females as "sweetie" and "dearie."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company