Monday, 27 February 2012

The French have a word for it

Or maybe I should write that very soon the French will have had a word for it.

(Is that a verb in the future past tense?)

Today I am contemplating - possibly at inordinate length - the subject of courtesy titles here in England and there in France. I will start there in France - or perhaps not, since the newspaper report I saw was published here in England. But it concerned France. The report stated that the feminist movement in France have succeeded in persuading the French government to abandon the use of the word "mademoiselle". In future all women will be "mesdames". The reasoning is that as men are always "monsieur" without indicating their married or unmarried state, why should a woman have to indicate whether or not she is married? You have to admit - well, I do, anyway - they have a point.

Similarly, why does a woman change her name on marriage in these enlightened days? Surely, this is a practice which dates back to the days when a wife was no more than a chattel, a possession of her husband. Mind you, I do know one woman who, after marriage, insisted on retaining both the title "Miss" and her maiden name.

But to get back to the subject. One benefit of doing away with mademoiselle is that I won't any longer have to try to work out whether the lady at the supermarket checkout (or anywhere else for that matter) is married or not. Actually, I don't bother to work it out now. If she is under about 40 I plump for mademoiselle on the grounds that she is so uch younger than me that "miss" doesn't seem too unreasonable. Older than that and I just sort of grunt after the obligatory "bonjour". I reckon that a wide smile and an English accent will let me get away with what would, for a Frenchman, be impolite.

Of course, here in England we fail to use any of these words most of the time. I can't imagine calling a waiter with the words, "Please, mister" which the French would use automatically: "S'il vous plait, monsieur". I suppose one might address a waitress as "miss" but perhaps we have become too politically correct - or too afraid of seeming to be politically incorrect - to use that word nowadays.

Perhaps the time will come when we revert to the word used during and in the immediate aftermath of the French revolution: "citoyen" (citizen); or the Russian "comrade". I hope not. One of the things I like about France is the continued use of those courtesy titles, the equivalent of our English "sir", "madam" and "miss". Literally, my sire (monsieur), my dame (ma dame) and my damsel (ma demoiselle).

Things just ain't what they used to be.


The Broad said...

I understand that the use of Madamoiselle has decreased greatly over the past years. The idea doesn't bother me too much except it seems not quite right to address a 10 or 12 year old as 'Madam' when before 'Madamoiselle' was rather perfect, don't you think?

Buck said...

The French crack me up in at least ONE area... that area bein' the lengths they'll go to to maintain the purity of the language. From The Wiki entry on L'Académie française:

As French culture has come under increasing pressure with the widespread use of English in media and technology, the Académie has tried to prevent the Anglicization of the French language. For example, the Académie has recommended, with mixed success, that some loanwords from English (such as walkman, software and email) be avoided, in favour of words derived from French (baladeur, logiciel, and courriel respectively). Moreover, the Académie has worked to modernize French orthography. The body, however, has sometimes been criticized for behaving in an excessively conservative fashion.

Damn You, Franglais!

Stephen Hayes said...

I read about this change in the French language and was saddened. I'm not sure why. I suppose it's fair to women.