Thursday, 19 April 2012

Is that ‘Mrd’ or ‘Mngl’?

Personal titles are something that really gets me down. They are such an obvious tool to categorise women according to their (sexual) availability and moreover, are only used to categorise women but never men. As ‘Mr MySurname’ I am and would always be an autonomous man, whereas as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs MySurname’ I am and always will be a (linguistically) dependent woman. But while the abolishment of personal titles has, in the UK at least, so far failed not all seems lost. As Dennis Baron shows in “Grammar and Gender”, there are other ways to counterbalance this essential inequality.

If we really are committed to gender equality but reluctant to let go of the titles of the past, there seems only one thing for it – to introduce (a) title(s) which indicate(s) the (sexual) availability of men. And as Baron’s list shows, we are certainly not stuck for choice or variety. Bobbye Sorrels, for example, proposes ‘Mrd’ and ‘Mngl’, as in ‘married man’ and ‘single man’, as potential alternatives, while Russell Baker prefers the more outlandish but of similar meaning: ‘Murm’ and ‘Smur’. But my all-time favourite comes from the pages of the Baltimore Evening Sun: ‘Mk’ (for single men), as in “a mark worth shooting at by single women” (Baron 1986, 167).

Now that’s something to aim at/for! Rather than only women being identifiable as potential targets, ‘Mk’ would allow them to equally identify the sexual availability of men. Hurray for equality? Or a step too far? Unfortunately it’s unlikely to catch on either way – which man would want to place himself in front of a proverbial gun…

So maybe gender-neutral titles are the best way forward to avoid unwanted (sexual) connotations? Varda Murrell One, for example, suggests ‘Pn’, as in ‘person’, as one such possibility, while Marie B. Hecht et al. propose ‘Msf’: ‘myself’, and David H. Stern merges ‘madam’ and ‘sir’ into ‘Masir’ (Baron 1986, 167). However, what puzzles me most when contemplating these ideas is not which option to choose but rather: why do we need titles at all? As we cannot, as yet, linguistically interact with any other species than the human – when would I need to announce that I am a ‘person’, ‘myself’ or (a) ‘madam’?

And that of course brings me right back to our current selection of titles. If human beings are only capable of interacting with other human beings, what use are titles other than to signal our (sexual) availability? And in a supposedly equal world, why is that availability only flagged for women? Of course we now at least have the ‘choice’ to select ‘Ms’ as a (more) neutral alternative, but the question has to be: why would women need to ‘choose’ to identify, and be identified, as autonomous when men are by default just that, independently human?

In consequence, equality remains an option rather than the firm foundation of humanity. And as long as we sideline personal titles as a minor issue or a bit of harmless traditional fun, we help to perpetuate a worldview that sees women as default (linguistic) property. 

Let's make women’s autonomy not a choice but a (linguistic) reality, please sign and forward Jeanne Rathbone's petition:!

Baron, Dennis. 1986. Grammar and Gender. New Haven: London: Yale University Press.


  1. Hi Christiane, Thanks for picking up on the epetition I started. I felt I had to do something as I, like so many women, must get so irritated and reminded of this not so subtle archaic discrimination on a regular basis especially with some online forms.
    The petition can only be a minor part of this campaign. Women need to challenge their banks, employers etc., their male and female colleagues who insist it isn't really a big deal.
    Perhaps you can persuade the London feminist Network to take it on.
    I first got interested in gendered language back in the 70s when I was a philosophy student. I found Dale Spender's book so exhilarating and enjoyed meeting her at Battersea Arts Centre after she spoke at an event there. She always wore lavender/purple. She was another outspoken Australian feminist, like Germaine Greer at that time, unlike their British academic counterparts who seemed to want to be part of the respected establishment.

    Good luck with your blogging.
    Jeanne Rathbone

  2. Hi Jeanne,

    thank you for your comment and starting the petition! You're right of course, we need a wider discussion to affect real change but with recent changes in France regarding 'Mademoiselle', for example, I feel we at least have a few more people's ears. A discussion on Mumsnet on the topic was very lively (430 posts!). Let's keep spreading the word :)


  3. Why not campaign for something that might actually make a difference? Something like equal pay, maybe? Just a suggestion.

  4. Actually, equal linguistic representation and access to equal rights are far from separate but interlinked. In Switzerland, for example, women did not get the vote until 1971(!) partly due to the premise that the constitution named ‘Schweizer Bürger’ but not ‘Schweizer Bürgerinnen’. The supposedly gender-neutral ‘Swiss citizen’ was here conveniently interpreted to exclude all women.

    In terms of titles, I think it is unhelpful for the progress of women’s rights to say the least, if we continue to be represented as first and foremost the property of, and therefore subordinate to, men. Considering that language is a, if not the, tool to represent and relate to all that surrounds us I would be careful to dismiss it as inconsequential.