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.

Of dukes and baronesses and scamsters

In September, Alexander Wood was in court for having posed as the duke of Marlborough (there’s a real one; I just checked) and for having run up a bill in the neighborhood of £10,000 at expensive London hotels. No one asked him for identification because they thought it would be “inappropriate to ask.”  I mean, this is (purportedly) a duke, after all. You don’t do a stop-and-frisk on him, and you don’t ask for i.d., even when he runs up a huge whackin’ bill. They did eventually get suspicious when he bought drinks for fellow guests—something I gather no aristocrat would do.

Setting aside this one person’s motivation (the article makes it sound, not surprisingly, like mental health comes into it), Britain does tempt a person to borrow titles.

Irrelevant photo: teasels

Irrelevant photo: teasels

When I went online to donate the money from our village fundraiser to the Red Cross, I was offered a choice of Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms, Doctor, Lady, Professor, Reverend, Dame, Sir, Major, Captain, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Sister, Lord, Canon, and Other. Oh, wheee! I lost my nerve before finding out whether Other would have given me a blank space to fill in the title of my choice, but I expect it would have.

As an aside, I was once called a dame, but no one mistook me for an aristocrat and no hotel bill was involved. And it wasn’t a compliment.

The Guardian’s subscription form despairs of coming up with a complete list and just leaves a blank line, where you can play as much as you dare. You want to be a general, or the Lord Mayor of Mill Crick? Feel free. Then sit back and see if your correspondence is addressed appropriately. And complain when it isn’t.

Why the blank instead of the list? I can’t help picturing some committee trying to list everything necessary to this title-obsessed land and sinking under the weight of the task. Why, for example, include Colonel but not General? And since this is the Guardian, a generally leftish and egalitarian paper, what about Private? Don’t privates deserve the respect of their title? And since the women members of the House of Lords are addressed as Baroness (something I happen to know because I’ve written letters to a fair few of them, and there’s a tale of its own), doesn’t that merit a mention? Or does Lady cover it? I haven’t a clue. If they’re Lady Whatsit, even though you address them as Baroness, what do they address themselves as? And what about the Barons? The male members of the House of Lords are Lords, not Barons. No, I don’t understand it either. But there are real barons out there, aren’t there? Granted, they probably don’t read the Guardian, but what if they wanted to?

And what about all the Lord Mayors dotted around the country. And the Counsellors: Spare a moment’s thought for all those long-suffering folks who sit on Parish Councils around the country, doing their unpaid and non-party-political bit for the most local level of local government? And Citizen. It was a popular title during the French Revolution. Give it half a chance and it could catch on again.

You can see the problem. Either the committee voted for the blank line and fled or else they’re still meeting, trying to complete the list, sinking deeper into despair with every passing week. Several of its members have been hospitalized for stress and clinical-level nit-picking.

This is what happens in a status-obsessed society. Everyone with a title needs to be recognized, placated, bowed to even.

And on the lowest level, where the rest of us live our lives? I still can’t get myself called Ms. Instead of Mrs.  No matter how often and politely I ask.