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If the French Can Abandon 'Mademoiselle,' Can We Kiss 'Miss' Good-Bye?

miss, mademoiselle

The French let go of "mademoiselle." Should we Americans abandon "Miss"?

I recently ranted against the idea that we should emulate the French when it comes to raising kids. Today, I’m kind of changing my mind. This has nothing to do with expecting toddlers to have impeccable table manners. Instead, I’m very interested in their new government mandate to rid society of “mademoiselle,” the French term for “Miss.”

Tuesday, an order came out of the French prime minister’s office to phase out the use of “mademoiselle” on administrative documents. Tax forms, insurance claims, voting documents, everything had a space for women to identify themselves as “madame” or “mademoiselle,” the former for married women, the latter for unmarried. Even ordering online groceries required women to declare their martial status. There’s no third option, no French equivalent of “Ms.” So in a country where fewer and fewer think marriage is even relevant to their lives, the women were still forced to make it a part of their identity.

Besides sexy smoking and living on brie, this “Miss” business is one way I wish we Americans could be a little more French. Sure, we’ve already gotten rid of the Miss/Mrs. check box on most government documents, which is as it should be. What I’d like to see is the elimination of it from speech — powered by the people, not the government, of course.

In a world of financial crises and overwhelming societal issues, I realize excising “Miss” from daily language is low priority. There’s also likely not a whole lot of public interest in doing so. Still, I really hate the word “Miss,” I always have, and the only thing that makes “Miss” grate even harder on my nerves is when it’s followed by my first name. Yes, even when cute little kids have just uttered it.

I know, dear Southerners (and some very good friends who I hope are not reading this right now!), I just heard you gasp. I see you shake your head. I know my stating this only strengthens your resolve to keep this tradition alive because what’s my problem, how dare I, etc. But boy do I hate being called “Miss Madeline.” Hateithateithateit.

I was raised by a Ms. and I’m sure that has something to do with it. I consider myself a Ms. if my unadorned first name just won’t do. But mainly I don’t like being called “Miss” because there’s something about it that sounds infantilizing to me, especially when a little kid says it. In my mind (one that, admittedly, was shaped in a culture where courtesy titles accompanied last names, not first ones), calling me “Miss Madeline” send the message that I’m owed the courtesy of a title, but not too great of one. Your kid isn’t supposed to call me by my first name only because that is too intimate, too presumptuous, too rude. And yet he’s address me with a term also reserved for a child. It’s as if your first-grader is patting me on the head.

When I hear “Miss Madeline,” I always want to repeat it, mock it, kind of shake my head and do a little dance. I want to start referring to myself in third person. “What can ‘Miss Madeline’ get you?” “Tell Miss Madeline what’s on your mind!” “Miss Madeline packed crackers. Would you like Miss Madeline to share some?”

Look, I’m all about bending to the norms of different cultures (except when those norms involve racism, etc.). In fact, I’m kind of proud of my ability to do so. So, I’m not about to tell some four-year-old or her mom to knock it off with the “Miss Madeline.” When in Rome, I answer to whatever the Romans want to call me, I really do. Lucky for me (and my apparently delicate naming sensibilities), I live where first names with adults are the presumption, not the exception. When I run in to a “Miss Madeline” situation, I usually respond “just Madeline is OK.” Once or twice, I’ve asked to be called “Ms. Holler” instead. Mostly, I shake it off and smile.

After all, documents are one thing, talking to people is another. And if there’s one thing Miss Madeline loves it’s flapping her gums with others.

How about you? Do you like and/or use Miss? And how does it work with men? Mr. Steve?

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