June 2011

You receive a letter offering you the job of your dreams. The letter is signed “J. B. Cust, Director of Human Resources.” Assuming that all you know about J. B. Cust is that this individual is the company’s Director of Human Resources, how should you begin your letter of acceptance, given the limitations of the inventory of courtesy titles that English puts at your disposal? The question is not a new one, as suggested by the following piece that appeared in the Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper the Springfield Sunday Republican on Nov. 10, 1901:

“There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts. When an author puts on the title page of a book Marion Smith, it is not even possible to be certain of the sex of the writer, and it is decidedly awkward for a reviewer to repeat the name in full over and over again. It would be a convenience if explanatory titles were added to the signature, but it seems to be regarded as “bad form.” Signatures to letters also cause no end of trouble to correspondents. The “Miss” or “Mrs” sometimes added in brackets are but an awkward makeshift, and often it is taken for granted that the recipient of the letter will remember the proper style of the writer, when, as a matter of fact he does nothing of the sort. Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful terms have in common. The abbreviation “Ms” is simple, it is easy to write, and the person can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered “Mizz,” which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs alike.”

Indeed, Miss and Mrs(.) have a common origin, nicely explained in the 1880 Century Dictionary entries for miss2, missis, missus, and mistresswith which the Springfield journalist may or may not have been familiar.

  • Miss2, : “[An abbr. of mistress, at first prob. as a title, the form Mistress, as written Mrs. and pronounced mis´ez, being still commonly abbreviated in rustic use in New England and among the Southern negroes, to Miss, often printed Mis’.] 1. Mistress: a reduced form of this title, which, so reduced, came to be regarded, when prefixed to the name of a young woman or girl, as a sort of diminutive, and was especially applied to young girls (corresponding to master as applied to young boys), older unmarried girls or women being styled mistress even in the lifetime of the mother; later, and in present use, a title prefixed to the name of any unmarried woman or girl.”
  • Missis, missus: “1. Mistress: a contracted form in colloquial or provincial use. The word thus contracted is spelled out chiefly in representations of vulgar speech; but as a title it is in universal spoken use in the form *missess or rather *misses (mis´ez), and is almost invariably written Mrs. See mistress. 2. A wife. [Dial. and colloq.]”
  • Mistress: “[Formerly also mistres, mistris, misteris; < ME. maistresse, mastresse, < OF. maistresse…< ML. magistressa, magistrissa, magistrix (for L. magistra), fem. of L. magister, master, chief: see mister1, master1. In familiar use the word has been contracted to missis or missus, a form regarded as vulgar except when written Mrs. and used as a title, correlated to Mr.: see missus. The term is also abbreviated Miss, esp. as a title, now of different signification from Mrs.: see miss2.] 1. A woman who has authority or power of control…2. A title of courtesy nearly equivalent to madam, formerly applied to any woman or girl, but now chiefly and specifically to married women, written in the abbreviated form Mrs.… 3. A woman who has mastered any art or branch of study… 4. A woman who is beloved and courted; a woman who has command over a lover’s heart… 5. A woman who illicitly occupies the place of a wife. 6†. In the game of bowls, the small ball at which the players aim; the jack.”

While mistress still designates a woman of power in a few compounds (e.g., concert mistress, the principal violinist in the orchestra), as a stand-alone term, it has largely lost its luster (a fate shared by madam, as in the contrasting Madam Secretary and the mayflower madam), assuming a basically negative sense, arguably as a casualty of the social upheavals centering around “women’s place” that came in the aftermath of World War II and found expression in such general-circulation writing as Mario Pei’s 1949 best-seller, The Story of Language: “‘Mister’ is originally the Latin magister, ‘headman,’ ‘commander,’ ‘steersman’ (the root is mag-, ‘great’). The educational, intellectual or occupational headman becomes the ‘master,’ the maître, maestro and mastro of the Romance languages, even the Meister of German. Socially, he turns into a person who is respected because of his prominent position. ‘Mistress’ is the same word, to which is added a Greek feminine suffix –issa, which in French becomes –esse. ‘Miss,’ an abbreviation of ‘Mistress,’ was used under Charles I to denote a woman of ill-repute, but later began to be applied to an unmarried woman, with the spelling ‘Mis.’ In Shakespeare’s days, ‘Mistress’ was used for both married and unmarried ladies, and feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss and its concomitant revelatory features, have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, ‘Miss’ (to be written ‘Ms.’), with the plural ‘Misses’ (written (‘Mss.’), even at the cost of confusion with the abbreviation of ‘manuscripts.’”

Fortunately, times change and we change with them, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes more cautiously, as suggested by the usage note accompanying the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed. 2000) entry for Ms. (which it defines as “A courtesy title before the surname or full name of a woman or girl…” and derives from a “blend of MISS and MRS.”]): “Many of us think of Ms. or Ms as a fairly recent invention of the women’s movement, but in fact the term was first suggested as a convenience to writers of business letters by such publications as the Bulletin of the American Business Writing Association (1951) and The Simplified Letter, issued by the National Office Management Association (1952). Ms. is now widely used in both professional and business contexts. As a courtesy title Ms. serves exactly the same function as Mr. does for men, and like Mr. it may be used alone or with a full name. Furthermore, Ms. is correct regardless of a woman’s marital status, thus relegating that information to the realm of private life, where many feel it belongs anyway. Some women prefer Miss or Mrs., however, and courtesy requires that their wishes be respected.”

Problem solved? Well, maybe. But what about J.B. Cust, Marion Smith, and the myriad others for whom a gender-agnostic courtesy title would be handy? A recent possibility has been suggested (pace Prof. Pei) by performance artist Justin Vivian Bond (http://justinbond.com/?p=537): “I don’t like any of the prefixes currently in common usage as none of them seem to apply… check one: _Mr. _Mrs. _Ms. _Miss. None of these work so I have adopted Mx because it implies a mix which is the least offensive and most general way I’ve been able to come up with to find a prefix that clearly states a trans identity without amplifying a binary gender preference, or even acknowledging the gender binary at all.”

No Gender Available

J. B. Cust

Will Mx make it into general usage as a courtesy title for not just the transgendered but for anybody whose gender is unknown or irrelevant? Stay tuned.

better half

Better Halves

All loving relationships have a trajectory each stage of which comes with a rich vocabulary referring to the participants and to the stage of the relationship itself. That this vocabulary is both extensive and often ambiguous is perhaps not surprising, given the fluidity of such relationships and the scrutiny and speculation to which we can’t help but subject them, whether the principals be our nearest and dearest or Kate and Wills.

Popular culture provides the basic template, sometimes adding, omitting, or reordering the essential components. For example, in their 1958 hit “The Book of Love,” the Monotones offer the following scenario: Chapter One profess your love for her; Chapter Two proclaim that you will never (never never never never) part; Chapter Three “remember the meaning of Romance;” and in the fourth and final chapter, break up but “give her just one more chance.” The writers abandon the narrative at this point, tacitly acknowledging that once it has become clear to “her” that we’re talking about lust rather than love, the relationship is probably doomed (the sentiments expressed by the Shirelles in “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” notwithstanding).

Perhaps a better model is the playground taunt that might have been directed at the Royals had they met as children:

Kate and Wills sitting in a tree
First comes love, then comes marriage,
Then comes Kate with a baby carriage.

We may assume that “First comes love” is a gloss on kissing rather than that lust precedes love, the precursor to marriage and subsequent parenthood—these words are from the mouths of babes, after all. (Interestingly, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the evolution of the expression “to hook up” has gone in the precisely opposite direction: At the beginning of the 20th century, “hook up” meant ‘meet’ and ‘marry,’ in the 1980s ‘become romantically or sexually involved,’ and in the 1990s ‘engage in kissing, petting, or (usu.) sexual intercourse.’) Out of the mouths of the media, the story of the grown-up Kate and Wills (whom we will presently give a well-deserved rest) basically runs like this: They meet and become friends, then form a romantic attachment, live together, roundly deny rumors of Kate’s pregnancy, and eventually get married.

The scenario of friendship first leading perhaps to some kind of romantic couplehood is perhaps the gold classic. Diogenes Laertes in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers tells us that when asked “What is a friend?” Aristotle replied, “A single soul housed in two bodies” [μία ψυχὴ δύο σώμασιν ἐνοικουσα]. The idea that a friend is someone with whom you share a single soul shows up in Horace’s ode (I.3), a propempticon in honor of his friend and fellow poet Virgil’s impending trip to Greece. (A propempticon—literally, ‘something accompanying’—is a sort of literary carry-on for you to take on a journey and by convention is addressed not to you but to your means of transport, in this case, a ship.) Horace refers to Virgil as “half of my soul” [animae dimidium meae]. Less than a century later, Statius in his “Propempticon Maecio Celeri” [‘Propempticon for Maecius Celerus’] goes Horace one better, referring to his subject as “the greater part of my [lit. our] soul” [animae partem nostrae maiorem]. Fast forward to 1590 and Sir Philip Sidney’s posthumously published The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia in which Argalus addresses his wife Parthenia as “My deare, my deare, my better halfe” and on to the OED, which informs us that the expression “better half” is “orig. my better half, the more than half of my being; said of a very close and intimate friend…; esp. (after Sidney) used for ‘my husband’ or ‘wife’; now, jocularly appropriated to the latter.”

While the assertion that the epithet has come to apply exclusively to the female member of a couple perhaps betokens more a trend than a fait accompli (at least in America), the concomitant evolution from serious to jocular usage is indisputable. Compare “my old lady” (as in “Who was that lady I seen you eating peas with last night?” “That was no lady: that was my wife.”). “My old lady” (like “my old man”) while gender-specific is, out of context, relationship-ambiguous: Your old lady (old man) can be either your mate or your mother (father). It’s not clear if this example of semantic overloading belongs in the same class as the familiar use of such kinship terms as daddy-o, brother, sister, or, originally, pal—a borrowing of the Romany word for ‘brother’ with which it is cognate—to designate people not related to you by blood.

Such ambiguities are not restricted to English. In Spanish, your better half is your media naranja (literally, ‘half [an] orange,’ presumably because if you cut an orange evenly in half, the two parts that form the whole are indistinguishable from each other). Grammatically feminine but semantically unmarked for gender, your media naranja can be either male or female. Also grammatically feminine but semantically unmarked for gender is Spanish pareja, which can refer to a couple or to either member of a couple, to a dancing partner, or to a mate, all of which English glosses are themselves gender-agnostic. Indeed, mate goes so far as to be even species-agnostic, a fact no doubt responsible for the disambiguating adage “One man’s mate is another man’s person.”

If you were one of the hundreds of millions who watched the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, you got to hear a largely unchanged version of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer wedding vows, ending with:

Those whom God hath joined together let no man put

Oddly enough, it feels like most of the movie weddings use, at least, this phrase, usually then cutting to a shot of the ne’er-do-well ex boy friend or the femme fatale bridesmaid, foreshadowing the upcoming asunderness.

Odd also was the use of very traditional vows after all the talk about the new royal couple being a modern example of monarchy for a new generation.

Lets think about this whole vow businesses for a second – why do we have vows in the  first place? (and by “we” I’m talking about western wedding ceremonies).  Several years ago I was involved in a wedding performed as a secular event by a “Certificate of Solemnization” presider.  Here’s what legally is supposed to be said:

  • Ask if they’re currently married or if they are a little “too” related
  • Ask if they are aware of what they are getting into (Are you sober?  How many fingers am I holding up?)
  • Ask if they want to marry each other (Are you sure?  Really?)
  • Announce that the couple is now married

So the whole shebang could be as short as:

  • Is there anything that would legally prevent you from being married today?
  • Do you understand what you’re doing?
  • Do you want to marry each other?
  • Mary Smith and John Jones are now married to each other.

Now let’s flash back to one summer, around 1970, where my parents are reading our local paper at the kitchen table:

Mom:    Look at this – that ne’er-do-well neighbor of ours was married in a sunrise service on the beach.
Dad:    Those hippies – I bet they wrote their own vows

At the time, I was a little more struck by the sunrise aspect of the wedding than the writing your own vows part, but back  in 1970, people actually wondered if the marriage was legal or at least “real” if folks were writing their own hippie dippy vows.  While the roman church has held that the marriage liturgy may not be messed with, today, it’s considered normal to either write your own ceremony or at least a supplemental vow section, and in fact, it’s expected:

“Don’t go by the book! Add a personal touch to your ceremony by declaring your love in your own words.   No doubt you’ve worked hard to stage a wedding reception with tons of individual style, so why should your wedding ceremony be any different?”

The vows still suggest a legal-like (or legal-sounding) set of promises (“I promise to be faithful to you”) or (“I promise to have the courage to let you be yourself”), but there is also an interest in “making the vows reflect your life together”.   Your mileage may vary here; reportedly, Jennifer Aniston vowed to always make Brad Pitt’s favorite banana milkshake.

But now you have to write the damn things. The common movie version of this modern dilemma usually revolves around the groom, struggling stereotypically with his inability to express any kind of emotions in a non-sporting related event, wrestling until the last possibly second to write something on a cocktail napkin.

Recent pop culture perfectly expressed this gender divide on the real meaning of vows in fine American televisual feast,  “Bridalplasty”, where 12 women competed to win both plastic surgery procedures and a dream wedding.

In one episode, the sequestered women were asked to write vows that they thought would match the vows that their fiancés back home would have written.  The women’s guesses were largely centered around vows for undying love and romance and the men’s vows, to a man, centered on listing all tasks they wished their brides would perform after they had tied the knot.  The “winning” bride guessed correctly that her husband to be would write a vow that centered around her vacuuming duties.

Maybe William and Kate had it right.


The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

One Day Marriage Designation Instructions

Write Your Own Wedding Vows – Don’t go by the book! Add a personal touch to your ceremony by declaring your love in your own words.


‘Bridalplasty’ Recap: Vows Of Obedience

Too late?