We have no neutral honorifics left for women

You might be aware of Virgin Trains’ cock-up a few days ago. Emily Cole reported some unpleasantness from one of their staff using Twitter:

UK train company Twitter staff are normally pretty good.Therefore you’d expect this to be handled in the same way as any other serious compaint – apologise, ask for a direct message with more details, and get the whole thing offline.

Instead:

That’s gone down about as well as you’d expect, and the response has now been replaced by a standard sorry-not-sorry “we apologise for any offence caused” message.

Apart from showing that one of Virgin’s contact centre staff needs some urgent training, this highlights another issue – thanks to centuries of this sort of crap we don’t actually have any appropriate honorifics left to address women.

Whilst I was at university, I did a load of volunteering with St John Ambulance. (Or rather, whilst I was playing with ambulances I occassionally did some university work, but I digress.) As part of that, you regularly end up needing to speak to people who’s names you don’t know, often at times of distress when causing any kind of offense is particularly unpleasant.

For males, this is easy. “Sir” is a handy catch-all, working for all ages down to about eight. Between, say ten years and 40 (particularly if the person is drunk), “mate” normally works OK, and has the handy bonus of making them marginally less likely to lash out at you. Under ten years old, my favourite was “chief”, or “young man” if the former would have sounded weird.

If you knew the person’s name, then “Mr Ramsbottom” becomes a straightforward alternative. Normally switching in their actual surname, obviously.

For women, this is much harder.

The corresponding word to sir is “madam”, but I’ve yet to find anyone who liked being called that. “Ma’am” (to rhyme with jam, rather than the beginning of marmalade) is slightly better, but still carries a slight air of chintz and doilies when addressing someone who isn’t an officer in the armed forces.

I don’t doubt that there are regions where “dear”, “love”, etc can be said without making the speaker sound like a misogynistic prat, but why take the risk? It certainly doesn’t work in my accent.

For younger women, it’s not any better. “Young lady” is not the same as “young man”, and “young woman” sounds like a description on a form.

Even once you know someone’s name, unless it’s appropriate to use their first name, you’re still left with the ridiculous issue of needing to know whether a woman is married to calculate their title. Best get exceptionally clear with your diction for “Ms”…

As a result, I generally didn’t use any kind of honorific for women. I still don’t.

I don’t think there are any left that convey a neutral level of respect and pleasantness without implying additional factors, and generally negative ones at that.

And what a daft state of language that is.

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