Academic Twitter has been all a buzz in the last week in their semi-regular dust-up about honorifics. What should you call people and what does it say about you as a person if you asked to be called something specific?
This is kind of an interesting question because no matter what you ask to be called, you are making a rhetorical choice. You are making some statement about your identity and how you relate to the people around you. So I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of these choices and consider why people get so up in arms about them.
First, some people choose to go by their first names. No honorific, just a name. This is the most collegial and congenial way to tell people to address you. It implies friendliness, openness, and indicates that you see everybody as a peer. There’s no sense of superiority. It’s also totally informal. This is casual and lets people know you are approachable, and you don’t stand on formality or regulation. It’s appropriate for friends, to be sure. It is probably appropriate for co-workers. There is a debate as to whether it is appropriate for professors and students, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Some people also go by just their last name, and not their first. There’s no real difference in formality or approachability in this, though some may see this a somehow “sportier” or more “masculine” way of referring to somebody. That is, however, not at all universal. Some people just have really great last names, and they are easy to say.
Then there is “Mr.” “Mr.” in America, is a title used before a surname or full name to address or refer to a man without a higher or honorific or professional title. One thing I want to point out about “Mr.” is that it is not dependent on a man’s marital status. Any man is a “Mr.” “Mr.” also subsumes identities. Many women know the feeling of having letters addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith” because the “Mr.” in a couple’s title is considered so much higher and more valuable than the “Mrs.” When somebody insists on being called “Mr. So-and-so” they are insisting on a certain amount of formality and respect. “Mr.” implies authority, perhaps some experience, and indicates the formality of the situation. “Mr.” is a title of respect, but does not indicate any kind of rank, expertise, or position. It is just a general show of respect for men.
“Mrs.” is the married counterpart of “Mr.” “Mrs.” is a title used before a surname or full name to address or refer to a married woman, or a woman who has been married, without a higher or honorific or professional title. Note this – “Mrs.” is only married women! It has nothing to do with age, experience, education, etc. It is the formal marker of marital status. This is why it is kind of divisive. Some women feel it is important to be recognized for their marital status. They are proud of their husbands and want people to know they are married – hence “Mrs.” Other women don’t want to be defined by their marital status and think they are more than just whether they are married, and so they bristle under the title “Mrs.” Regardless, “Mrs.” is a formal title, and implies more distance and respect than just a first name. There is also the implied respect for the husband by acknowledging her marital status. So in that way it is doubly formal. Some women who are married to other women are reclaiming “Mrs.” however, so it is not always related to a man.
Then there is “Miss.” “Miss” is a title prefixed to the name of an unmarried woman or girl. It can occasionally be used by a married woman keeping her name for professional reasons, though that is increasingly rare. “Miss” is formal, but it implies two things: youth and inexperience, and being unmarried. So “Miss” is probably the least quote-unquote “respectful” of these titles so far. It shouldn’t be that way, but there it is. When people call somebody “Miss Jones” they generally are implying she is young, often inexperienced, and commenting on her marital status. Once again, a woman’s title is defined by her position to a man. We can’t really get away from that.
Some women prefer “Ms.” to “Miss” or “Mrs.” “Ms.” is a title used before the surname or full name of any woman regardless of her marital status (a neutral alternative to Mrs. or Miss ). “Ms.” takes the man out of the pictures. It is still formal and respectful but not defined by a woman’s relationship to a man. It has become more and more popular over the last few years as women have become more comfortable claiming their own positions and identities in American society.
Then there is that idiosyncratic way of referring to people found in southern states and kindergarten classes throughout the country of “Miss First Name” or “Mr. First Name.” The honorific is supposed to go before a person’s last name to show a certain amount of dignity or respect. But, and this is almost always a gendered thing, sometimes people will take the “Miss” or “Ms.” and tack it onto a first name. This is supposed to be endearing, but honestly, it’s kind of insulting. It says, “I am going to show you respect, but not enough to use your last name. I’ll give you the title but will insist on the familiarity of your first name.” It’s supposed to be sweet. But really, it’s just diminutive. That’s why it is generally used by small children and grown-ups who think they are being cute but are actually being really dismissive. It’s the trappings of formality without the substance of it.
There is the title “Professor.” That can mean a teacher of the highest rank in a college or university. It can mean an assistant or an associate professor. Or informally, it can mean any instructor, especially in a specialized field. It’s a formal title and it is one of respect. If you call somebody “Professor” you are acknowledging their expertise. It is also not gendered in any way. “Professor” doesn’t indicate marital or relationship status, it just indicates your position as head of the classroom and recognized expert in the field. Professor can cover a wide variety of ranks – it’s kind of the catch all for higher-level instructors. Harry Potter fans will know that even at the lower levels of education experts were called “professor” for their specific expertise. Minerva McGonagall was a professor of transfiguration and Severus Snape was a professor of potions. It’s too bad JK Rowling turned out to be wildly transphobic because her books are filled with lots of useful examples such as this one. But bad people write useful things.
Then there is the title “Dr.” and this one always stirs up some controversy amongst those outside of academia. The definition of “Dr.” is a person who holds Ph.D. degree (or the equivalent) from an academic institution. The definition of physician is a licensed medical practitioner. They both get called “Dr.” Some people are of the opinion that only physicians should be called “Dr.” but that is historically very inaccurate. Doctor is an academic title that originates from the Latin word of the same spelling and meaning. The word is originally from the Latin word meaning ‘to teach’. It has been used as an academic title in Europe since the 13th century.
The primary meaning of Doctor in English has historically been with reference to the holder of a doctoral degree. These particularly referred to the ancient faculties of divinity, law and medicine, sometimes with the addition of music, which were the only doctoral degrees offered until the 19th century.
The first official recognition of Doctor being applied as a title to medical practitioners regardless of whether they held a doctoral degree was in 1838, when the Royal College of Physicians resolved that it would “regard in the same light, and address by the same appellation, all who have obtained its diploma, whether they have graduated elsewhere or not.”
Regulation of the medical profession also took place in the United States in the latter half of the 19th century, preventing quacks from using the title of Doctor. However, medical usage of the title was far from exclusive, with it being acknowledged that other doctorate holders could use the title and that dentists and veterinarians frequently did.
In terms of hierarchy, Dr. outranks Mr., and Mr. outranks Mrs. and Mrs. outranks Miss. It’s part of a patriarchal system that assumes somebody educated must be a man, and a man is more valuable than a woman, and a woman connected to a man is more valuable than an unattached woman. But – the correct way to address a letter to a married woman with a PhD is Dr. Mary and Mr. John Smith. Because even though she’s a woman she outranks him. This is a common mistake. But I can tell you now a lot of colleges asking for money have lost out on it because they couldn’t get their own alum’s titles and names right.
There are a number of other titles in English that one may encounter, though they are less common. You may find yourself in the presence of a Reverend, or a Father. An Honorable or a Captain or Colonel. There are a number of honorifics that indicate your position or what you have accomplished, and some are gendered, and some are not. Some have a history of being gendered but are now neutral in ways they historically weren’t. But English is full of titles. If you’re an adult you have at least one, if not more, you can choose from.
Every few months in my field there is a recurring kerfuffle about what is an is not an appropriate thing to call a professor. And while the kerfuffle is specific to academia, the arguments are not.
It inevitably starts with somebody, often on twitter, going off about how they think all professors should go by their first names because it levels the playing field and is democratizing. They want their students to be comfortable with them and they want their students to know they respect them and don’t want to create systems of oppression and hierarchy in the classroom, so they always tell their students to call them by their first name and they have never had problems with disrespect in the classroom.
And honestly, that sounds well and good. But let’s think about that for a minute. Who does that really work for? Sure it works for the students. Students have a way they can feel like they are on equal footing with their professors. But there is an assumption at work, there. The idea is that by calling the professor by their first name the professor has somehow lowered their status. That assumes that the students saw the professor as somebody with a higher status than them to begin with. That means that the professor was protected by institutional powers and structures to begin with.
What about the people who aren’t protected by those institutional powers and structures?
Women and Black people and People of Color don’t have the systemic power behind them that some other people do. Many people do not automatically assume their status is higher than themselves. Women, Black People, People of Color, LGBTQ people, or disabled people don’t walk in with status. So they have to be very careful about making moves to remove markers of professionalism, expertise, or status. If those things are not necessarily assumed, they might need to be stated. So for some people it is necessary to keep a title like Dr. or Prof. or Rev. or Honorable.
People in academia know this story too well. Male professors may get to go by their first names or by Dr. So-and-so. Or often students will call them Professor. Rarely does a male professor get called “Mr.” except by students who are completely unfamiliar with college and what a professor is. But women in the professoriate get called “Mrs.” all the time. It seems to be the default. It is so strange to students to think of a woman as an expert or an authority that they automatically shift into titles that define her by her marital status. This isn’t an accident. It’s an expression of the incredulity that a woman can be the same kind of expert as a man. So for a man, it’s one thing to say, “call me by my first name.” He’s not fighting the assumption that his value is because he belongs to another man. For a woman, or for any other marginalized person, the assumption is that they can’t be authoritative, so those titles and honorifics are a specific reminder that they deserve someone’s respect.
The question of when to use titles is a whole other ball of wax. I know some people who insist on “Dr.” any time anyone uses an honorific because they worked hard for that title, and they think they deserve to be recognized for it. I only use it in professional settings because it is my professional title. But honestly, I still cringe a little anytime I get anything addressed or called by Mrs. Some women and People of Color like to go by their first names in all situations because they dislike formality. Some men insist on formality and prefer honorifics in most of their lives.
The thing is, there’s no hard and fast rule. People are telling you something about themselves when they tell you what they want to be called. If they insist on a title, they want you to know this is a formal atmosphere and they want you to acknowledge their position. If they go by their first name, they want it to be a casual atmosphere. But people get to make that call for themselves. If a person invites you to call them by their first name, by all means, call them by their first name. But if somebody introduces themselves as Ms. So-and-so or Dr. So-and-so or Rev. So-an-so, that’s what you call them. Because they’re telling you something about themselves. About how they relate to you and the rest of the world. About how they fit into it.
Look, this isn’t hard. People construct identities for themselves. And when they tell you their names, they’re telling you something about that identity. An honorific is part of that identity. It’s not up to us to tell people how to manage their identities. Or to tell them how to relate to the world. It’s up to us to respect their choices. If that’s hard for you that’s more a comment on your lack of respect than anybody else’s attitude.
So if your boss wants to go by her first name, that’s great. If your priest insists on Father Robinson that’s up to him. If your father-in-law still insists on being called Mr. Jones after ten years of marriage that tells you everything you need to know about that relationship (good luck to you). But don’t tell people they’re arrogant for wanting to go by a title. Did they earn that title? Then it’s theirs to use. And they may have good reasons for wanting to use it that you can’t really understand because of your position. And, to be frank, your insistence on using first names may well be undermining a lot of hard work that other people are putting in, so maybe keep it to yourself?
What we call ourselves matters. It’s a rhetorical choice and it helps construct and define our identities. It’s not up to anyone to police that. So claim your title. You’ve earned it.
Just as a closing thought, we know titles differ from country to country. So if you have a comment, you’d like to make based on where you’re from or a clarification you’d like to make about your particular area, drop a comment on our website or shoot us a tweet! We love hearing from our international audience.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.