Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Too good to Miss

From the BBC:

Calling teachers "Sir" or "Miss" is depressing, sexist and gives women in schools a lower status than their male counterparts, an academic has said.

Prof Jennifer Coates told the Times Educational Supplement "Sir is a knight... but Miss is ridiculous - it doesn't match Sir at all".

She said she had been struck by the disparity while volunteering in a secondary school. But one educationalist said being called "Miss" was a sign of respect...

I went to a boys' grammar school where nearly all the teachers were men, so we had an app for that - we simply addressed them all as "sir".

Mrs Hammond, our English teacher (who was quite lovely, actually) would occasionally rebuke somebody and ask him to address her as "Miss" or "Mrs Hammond", to which the rebukee would usually reply "Yes, Mrs Hammond, sir".

Whether this is all sexist or not I do not know, but it is one heck of a void in the English language here.

For example, if I'm in the supermarket and I want to ask a male employee - regardless of age - where something is, I address him as "sir" and he probably addresses me as "sir" as well and everybody is happy. If I'm asking a particularly young female employee, I don't mind addressing her as "miss" just for a bit of a giggle, but if she is clearly older than twenty or so, there just isn't a word at all.

"Miss" feels clearly wrong, but "madame" seems wildly inappropriate as well, so I end using neither and asking straight out, thus widening the gender gap even further - males get an honorific, females don't.
I had a similar dilemma with a dustbin man recently. I left the house just as he was wheeling our bin back from the lorry, so I said "Thank you."

He looked baffled, so I explained "I just wanted to show a bit of appreciation for what you..."

[Awkward pause while I desperately try to guess what dustbin men call themselves this week: refuse collectors? waste disposal operatives? public health officers? At which stage I thought sod it.]

"... dustbin men do, taking away all our rubbish every week [waves hand vaguely], keeping the place tidy and all that."


Ralph Musgrave said...

The politically correct like forcing us to change the words we use just so as to boss us around. At one time it was acceptable to call blacks "negro". Then it became un-PC, and we were all supposed to use the word "black".

It won't be long before some PC bore decides that the word "black" has negative connotations and that we all have to use some other word or phrase (probably involving a good fifteen syllables).

Kj said...

Sir is an english specialty, but it has also annoyed me that there's no female marriage-status-neutral adress to women in germanic languages, as opposed to mr/herr.

Bayard said...

"Prof Jennifer Coates told the Times Educational Supplement "Sir is a knight... "

Do these people ever bother even to think before spouting off to the meeja? Of course "Sir" isn't a knight, unless it's "Sir John". "Sir" is, and has been for centuries, a respectful way of addressing a man. Perhaps the Prof should get out more.

Mind you it does seem daft to call a married female teacher of mature years "Miss". Why can't they be addressed as "Ma'am"?

"Whether this is all sexist or not I do not know, but it is one heck of a void in the English language here"

Indeed, compared to French, with their "Monsieur", "Madame" and "Madamoiselle". It comes naturally to a Frenchman to refer to another Frenchman as "Monsieur", as in "Monsieur, vous avez oublié votre parapluie", whereas "Sir, you have forgotten your umbrella" sounds overly formal and "Mister, you have etc." even more awkward.

paul said...

when I was at school far away the men were Sir, the women were Ma'am and respected equally: it was compulsory to greet every teacher when passing in corridors, the street etc and at the beginning of each lesson - THe English language is not deficient, unlike some languages such as one local dialect which did not have genders so some of my friends got a bit confused as to whether Ma'am was a he (since in their language s/he was the same)

Macheath said...

The fact that the suggested replacement is the teacher's forename speaks volumes.

This practice occasionally surfaces in the kind of school which has a self-styled 'head learner' in charge - sorry, in a leadership position; such places should always be given a wide berth, especially you hear things like this from 2010:

'School bosses say they hope the trial will “enhance the relationship” between the kids and their mentors.'

Funnily enough, there have been rather a lot of those 'enhanced relationships' in the papers recently...

Mark Wadsworth said...

P, yes, if we are talking school pupils and female teachers who are at least ten or twenty years older, "Ma'am" is appropriate.

But I can't bring myself to address women in shops etc. as "Ma'am", in particular if they are much younger than I am, and I don't think they'd thank me for it anyway. They'd probably think it was fucking weird, to be honest.

McH, "respect" which relies purely on formalities is not real "respect".

That said, I'd be delighted if women decided on a female equivalent to "sir" for all purposes and then stuck to it.