Kit Steinkellner
May 16, 2014 10:21 am

Can we all agree one thing? The word “Miss” needs to go. A recent article in the UK’s Telegraph explored the sexism behind the courtesy titles still used in education. “Sir” is for male teachers, “Miss” is for female teachers. There is a disparity gap between these words. “Sir” is how you’d refer to a knight who’s about to go slay giants and dragons. “Miss” is how you’d refer to a tragically lonely Dickens character (ahem, Miss Havisham) or a little girl in a fancy department store trying on shoes for that wedding where she’s going to be a flower girl. Words matter, and there’s inherently more respect built into the word “Sir” and less respect built into the word “Miss.”

In America, we also have a problem with gender and honorifics. If you’re a man, you’re a Mr. End of story. We women have a few more courtesy titles. You’re a “Miss” if you’re young and unmarried. You’re a “Mrs.” when you get married. You’re a “Ms.” if you don’t want your honorific to be based on whether or not you’re married. These courtesy titles are used in professional and formal situations. You see your honorific when mail is addressed to you, or when you’re a teacher dealing with a student, a lawyer dealing with a new client, a doctor dealing with a new patient (I think I’m right about this doctor/lawyer stuff, but everything I know about being a lawyer/doctor I learned from “The Good Wife”/ “Grey’s Anatomy” so if my working knowledge of medicine/law is off, blame those shows). Maybe you see your courtesy title every day. Maybe you see it only once in a while. It’s still attached to your name. And it’s an attachment that shouldn’t define whether you’re married or unmarried.

If we turned the tables and started referring to men by various honorifics based on whether they were young or old, married or unmarried, it would sound ridiculous. What would be the male equivalent of “Miss” or “Mrs.” even be? “Miss-ter”? “Mrs.-ster”? We just accept with titles that men are men.

I like “Ms.” You’re a “Ms.” if you’re sixteen, a “Ms.” if you’re a hundred and four, and a “Ms.” if you’ve been married twelve times or never been married at all. It’s professional and it’s respectful. There’s no judgement attached when everyone who identifies as female uses the same word. Marriage and age are not a part of your label. You identify as female, you are a “Ms.”

Even if we did rearrange this system so that “Mr.” and “Ms.” were the only two courtesy titles we were using, we still wouldn’t be taking into consideration the fact that not all people easily define themselves as “male” or “female.” For some, gender is a fluid concept, and there should be a word in common usage that’s respectful of that. Really, we should have an honorific that doesn’t rely on a person’s gender at all, but rather is a term used to address all people with respect. Words aren’t just words. They carry power and have meaning. Our culture is becoming increasingly inclusive and open-minded, and we need to be speaking a language that reflects that change.

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