The things we call ourselves: British titles

One of the joys of living in Britain is seeing what titles that pop up when I fill out a form online. I’m not talking about book titles or album titles, but personal titles. In my former life in the U.S., I got to choose between Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Dr., usually in that order.

In Britain, though? I was using a web site a while back and on the Personal Details page I pulled down the Titles menu. They offered me:

Mrs

Mr

Miss

Dr

M

Mlle

Mre

Sir

Lord

Ms

Lady, and

Reverend

None of the titles had periods after them. That may be a cost-saving measure. Those periods can get expensive, even when you buy in bulk.

Strangely relevant photo: This is a plant called lords and ladies.

Strangely relevant photo: This is a plant called lords and ladies.

Wild Thing and I argued about what Mre was. She favors Meals Ready to Eat, but I lean toward a misspelling of Madame: Mme. Exactly why a British web site needs to have French titles, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because someone imported it from another web site, which happened to be French.

These things happen. When I worked as a freelance writer, some real estate developer hired me to write a brochure, and I was told to basically copy it from some other company’s brochure. Why they needed a writer to do that I have no idea, but they were willing to pay me for it and it didn’t seem like a good time to argue.

The original brochure said the apartment complex had an indoor elevator. I copied that in, but at almost the last minute I asked the woman who’d hired me if that didn’t seem, um, strange. She looked at the original. She admitted that, yes, it did seem a bit odd since elevators had a habit of being indoors.

We changed it. We also changed the drawings and enough of the wording that we couldn’t get nailed for plagiarism. So I do understand how easy it is to import very odd stuff into unimaginative text.

That only makes me more curious about how those French titles ended up on the list.

But back to the actual list I pulled down: Prosaically, I checked my standard Ms. But it did remind me that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Full disclosure: Wild Thing and I never were in Kansas. We were in Minnesota. Where they do get tornadoes but where Lord or Lady don’t show up in pull-down menus. Neither does Reverend, despite the U.S. being a more aggressively religious country than the U.K.

Further full disclosure: Although Wild Thing and I got married last summer—we both think it was in June but, romantics that we are, we’ve already managed to forget the date—neither of us goes by Mrs. We can’t see why women should be stamped with their marital status every time they fill out a form or open the mail. It’s a holdover from the days when a woman’s marital status determined her legal status and, hell, her entire life. Calling me Mrs. is a reliable way to make me bristle. I mention that in case making me bristle appeals to you.

For as many titles as Britain offers, Ms isn’t as commonly available as it is in the U.S. I’m sure it means something, although I don’t know what.

But let’s not get stuck on Ms. and Mrs. when we have so many other titles to play with.

I once took part in a letter-writing campaign to the House of Lords, which was considering a bill that has since made a complete hash of the National Health Service. As an American, I’m all too aware of what the alternative to the National Health Service looks like, so I was passionate about this. So passionate that I was willing to write to the members of an antiquated, expensive, and silly branch of government.

A government web page helpfully explains how to write to the lords who populate the House of Lords, because if you’re a lord you just might take the question of how you’re addressed very seriously. And if you’re not a lord but a letter writer trying to convince a lord of something, you don’t want to piss her or him off with your first line. So you read what the government writes and you don’t snark about it until later, when you get to write a blog post and can get as snarky as you want.

To the women lords, you say, “Dear Baroness Whoever,” but to the men you say, “Dear Lord Whoever.”

It’s interesting that you don’t say, “Dear Lady Whoever,” to the lady lords. I would have thought that lord and lady went together. You know: bacon and eggs, bread and butter, lord and lady. But lady must mean something different—probably the wife of a lord. Or—well, how would I know? I’m a barbarian and happy to remain so.

Somewhere deep in the convolutions of the British civil service is a department staffed with people who not only know all this stuff but care.

I was tempted to add a discreet touch of italics to my letters to the men, “Dear Lord,” hoping it would call up an image of my head drooping hopelessly onto a supporting hand, but diplomacy won out and I kept the whole line in respectful Roman type (which is what non-italics are called, so now 96% of you will have actually learned something from this post; an additional 3% already knew it; and the remaining whatever% stopped reading paragraphs ago).

All my discretion didn’t help a bit. The bill passed in spite of my Roman type, and the NHS has turned into organizational hash, which was the goal all along, because the American health companies are circling it like vultures around someone lost in the desert and barely able to crawl. But I won’t go on about that because I’m too angry to be funny.

One baroness did write me back, at length. That seemed like a hopeful sign. She didn’t even open her email, “Dear Plebian.”

So I wrote her back. And she wrote me back. And on we went for maybe half a dozen long emails on each side, and they got increasingly strange, because we seemed to be writing past each other rather than to each other. In other words, she wasn’t interested in what I was saying, so why was she taking her time? I was taking mine because she had some power, or at least the semblance thereof, and for quite a while I suffered from the delusion that I might convince her of something. Gradually, though, I began wanting to ask, “Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

I was grateful when at long last she stopped writing.

Her name later showed up on a list of lords who had financial interests in private health care companies, which should have disqualified them from voting on the bill but didn’t.

Dear lord.

I still want to know why she took the time to write me. Is she so at sea in the House of Lords that writing pointless letters to a random stranger gives her some feeling of purpose?

I notice that Baroness isn’t one of the choices on the pull-down Titles menu. If the baronesses use the site (and I have no idea at this point what the site actually was), They have to be either Lord or Lady. Or if they want to go slumming with the rest of us, Ms or Meals Ready to Eat.

54 thoughts on “The things we call ourselves: British titles

  1. You’ve just summed up everything that is wrong with this battered country and still managed to make me smile in the process. I have friends who are still making very naive pleas on Facebook to ‘save our NHS’. That’s like giving mouth to mouth to a corpse fully expecting it to breathe again. The process of dismantling the NHS began in Thatcher’s reign of terror and it has taken this long to destroy it. The glint of money for the private health companies is way too strong for it to stop now. They have done the same with education. We have private companies running our schools for profit now. Us peasants are just a gigantic money box for the idle rich. I am sick of being turned upside down and shaken. I long for an island where money has not been invented, not this floating prison being paddled by the unscrupulous filthy rich few. But I did enjoy your post – it is interesting to hear an American take of our stupid House of Lords!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. From another slightly rebellious angle I insist on using the title ‘Mrs’ and referring to my ‘Wife’ as we have fought so long for the right of same sex marriage and I know there are people it still irritates. So, I am a Mrs and my Wife is a Mrs and they can just, well get used to it! However, my Wife may soon be changing to Meals Ready to Eat as her love of food will surpass gay rights.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I like Meals Ready to Eat, but it could also be ‘Mysterious random encounter’ – I’ve met many of those over the years. So, Non-italics is Roman? That’s interesting. It’s always good to start a Friday with a smile and by learning something new. I’ve done both…can I go home now, Ms?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Mre
    How to use: Mre. Smith.

    Pronunciation: Pronounced mystery or misstree.

    History and meaning: A play on non-binary gender often being perceived as “mysterious.” One potential problem is that it contains the “mister” and “miss” sounds in the beginning. In 2001, Liz Menzel wrote, “As Mr. is short for Mister, and Mrs. was once short for Mistress, how about Mre., for ‘Mistree’ (or I suppose for ‘mystery,’ for those who demand their spelling).”[4]

    http://nonbinary.org/wiki/Gender_neutral_titles

    Liked by 2 people

    • I somehow doubt whatever web site I found that list on was that cutting edge. But I tell you, the world’s getting more complicated by the minute. I can hardly tell my prefab food from my non-binary gender concepts anymore.

      Like

  5. I don’t mind being Ms or Mrs or Miss. What I do mind is I’ve taken his name and it’s now my name and it’s hard for people and now I have three hard-for-people names because people are becoming more and more illiterate, which has nothing to do with your post, but nonetheless, it’s how I’ve processed it.
    I often question if I’da had more grief over “Why didn’t you take his name?” or “Why don’t your children have that name?” than I do about people calling me Mrs Motrin…
    I should think anyone with a fancy title has better things to do that write the plebs, but then, I may be forgetting that so often people are paid quite well to hold positions that do nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I used to work (years ago) for a software services company called CAP – which stood for Computer Analysts and Programmers. (It’s the CAP bit that’s relevant in the rest of this tome.) Now all us software professionals in the company used to regularly receive junk mail from computer hardware and software companies, and companies that organised seminars and exhibitions on computing, because through one means or another, we’d all ended up on computer-hosted mailing lists that recorded our gainful employment at CAP Ltd.

    One day, one of our employees, a Mr X, received some junk mail that was addressed on the envelope to “CAP, X” (rather than the more conventional “Mr X, Cap Ltd”). Clearly, some mailing database had a screwed up version of Mr X’s name and company, and the computer software that put the address on the envelope just couldn’t cope with this. But, oh joy, when our Mr X opened the envelope, he found that the same software’s attempt to personalise his junk mail had produced a letter which began:
    “Dear Captain Henson…”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love it. And it reminds me of a story I saw in the paper back when I lived in the U.S. It has nothing to do with titles but everything to do with computers. It seems that some town or other had a long name that ended in D. And no one in that town was ever called for jury duty. Which, although the article didn’t say this, was probably just fine with the residents. How this came to light I don’t remember, but it turns out that the computer had run out of space for the final D and bumped it into the next category, thereby listing every single one of the residents as deceased.

      I didn’t know computers could do that, but hey, the papers wouldn’t lie, would they?

      Like

      • Any computer has finite storage capacity and finite processing power, no matter how big and fast it may be. In the early days of computers, storage and processing power were very limited indeed, so us programmers had to resort to all sorts of tricks to get round these restrictions. The millennium “bug” is the classic example of this: storing dates with a two digit year rather than the full four digits to save space. When, at the millennium, there were no actual disasters through date-related software failures, the media invoked the conspiracy theory that the software industry had worked a con on the public to boost revenues. They were dead wrong about that – the threat was indeed real, but it was only dedicated effort by software professionals to find and fix the faults that averted it. Job well done (I know – I did some of it).
        So to come back to your story about the “deceased” residents; yes it’s perfectly possible that some necessary space saving programming might have an unforeseen side effect like that!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wondered where you were going with that, and it’s good to know that such a ridiculous thing is possible. It restores my faith in absurdity, which–okay, I’ll be honest: The world we live in keeps my faith in absurdity so well fed that it’s shaped like a barrel most years. Nevertheless, I enjoy feeding it one more little treat. My thanks.

          Like

  7. All those titles are just mind numbing, Ellen. I do have a question. Where was Dame? I have a secret. I would love to be known as a Dame. It reminds me of a woman who spends quite a bit of time watching movies with fast talking men in high trousers. Because you piqued my interest with the discussion on Mre, I did some research. According to nonbinary.org, Mre is a gender neutral title. I have learned something new, thank you! Since there are so many individuals with OBE’s,CBE’s, and MBE’s do they have a special designation? This was a very amusing and informative post! BTW, I tend to skip Mrs., Ms, etc. I am just me, Susan. I don’t need a title.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you on going title-less, but some forms won’t accept you without one. Anita also suggested that Mre. might be there to offer a genderless title, but I’m reasonably sure the website (and I have no memory of what it belonged to) wasn’t that forward looking. I base that on its inclusion of Lord etc. But maybe I’m making assumptions here.

      OBEs etc., I think, are still Mr., Ms., and so forth. But you shouldn’t take my word on that. Ever. As for Dame, I have a hard time taking it seriously as a title. It sounds like something out of a black-and-white movie, as in, “I saw him with a dame.” (The word would be spoken in italics.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. To us Greek peasants, titles seem incomprehensible. I know of someone who, when calling a friend, kept asking for ‘Mr. Lord John’ ! For myself, it’s good I don’t circulate in such exalted circles, because protocol is beyond me – I just could not make myself care. And pull-down menus will be finding things increasingly difficult: apart from titles, there are all these new genders, and populations: how do you describe yourself if your mother is Japanese and your father half-Moroccan and half Norwegian?

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Google says either Meals ready to eat or Michigan rules of evidence, so you’re probably right that it’s a typo. I knew that British titles were complicated (in reference to how to address people) from my old days of reading British mysteries. I didn’t really learn how to do it, just that it was difficult (as in the Lord, Lady, Baroness thing). Anyway, thanks for sharing at the Blogger’s Pit Stop.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In real life, most people seem to just call each other by first name. In formal situations–well, okay, I haven’t been in a lot of formal situations, so I’ll stop before I make a liar out of myself. It helps, of course, that I don’t know a lot of lords and ladies. In fact, I don’t know any. I’m sure there’s a reason for that. I did meet one baroness, from the House of Lords, who took part in a local, public discussion of a disastrous bill that was under consideration (and which later passed). She supported it and it’s been hard not to write her and say, “We told you so.” But to her credit, she was addressed by first name.

      And thanks for the work you put into the Blogger’s Pit Stop. It’s great.

      Like

  10. I’m glad they had “Reverend”; since I’ve got an ordination from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I might have to use that one if I have the chance. But my spouse would be out of luck with this list – his title is “Hon.” (for “The Honorable”) And that period is very important, otherwise people might think he was from Baltimore, and just calling himself “hon”.

    When I was in high school in the 70’s, some automated list generator left the “m” off of “Miss” and I would up with a lot of letters addressed to me as if “iss” were my first name. This got better when I started getting letters addressed to “Mr. Iss”.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Mre if anywhere near the Mll is probably something French. Or a typo. Or maybe the person creating the form was doing it on a tablet…
    I prefer being called Mrs to Ms. I hate being called Ms… to me Mrs indicates a change in my life (it got a whole lot better. Along with the husband came a lot of other changes that were good. One of those was losing my horrible unmarried surname and all the grotty past that went along with it.) However, often I will use Ms on forms online as then when I get junk mail with that on them, I know what ne’er-do-wells sold my details to spammers.

    The thing about naming is crazy. I’ve always thought that ‘The United Kingdom’ should change every time there’s a Queen. Like now.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Yo to you and Wild Thing. I’m pretty sure, having taken French in high school, that Mre stands for ‘Monsieur’. Though why the Brits would bother with this escapes me. I didn’t think they cared that much for the French (?) BTW, I want to be called ‘Queen of All She Surveys’

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Pingback: How To Network Your Blog-10/1/16 – DREAM BIG DREAM OFTEN

    • It’s a title given to a bishop in the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church of Great Britain. And if I sound like I know what I’m talking about, that’s only because I looked it up. Without that, I could’ve only gotten as far as “it’s a title.” Most Reverend applies to archbishops. Unless you’re in the Catholic Church outside of Great Britain, in which case they’re all Most Reverend. Or in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or the Methodist Church, in which case the title applies to assorted other positions but I’m already confused enough that I don’t want to add to the muddle in my brain, since by noon I predict that I won’t remember any of this.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I just returned from your post, enjoyed it, and left you a note about the cheese rolling. You’ll find a post about it somewhere in this mess–the section called “Traditions” is a likely place, although I don’t promise. Someday I’ll reorganize the blog and it will all make sense. And the sea will turn to lemonade.

      Like

Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s