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: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/18225!
Baron, Dennis. 1986. Grammar and Gender. New Haven: London: Yale University Press.