Mistering the dead
Arnold Zwicky, who now has his own blog, has returned to a topic previously addressed: the complications and inconsistencies apparent in the use of courtesy titles ( Miss, Mr., Mrs., Ms.) in journalism. Most newspapers have abandoned the practice except in obituaries, but even there troublesome issues arise when historical figures are mentioned.
In the New York Times article on the dissecting table, the late Jack Spicer is referred to as Mr. Spicer. So far, so good. But Archibald MacLeish (d. 1982) and Allen Ginsberg (d. 1997) get no courtesy titles, which raises the delicate point of how long after the death rattle the courtesy title remains in effect.
There appears to be a sliding scale of posthumous respect. Allen Ginsberg, 11 years up the golden staircase, is merely Ginsberg, but Martin Luther King Jr., now martyred 40 years, often turns up as Dr. King. This is an area in which the copy editor’s impulse toward straightforward rules and uniform practice is cruelly thwarted.
This week, when Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt died, The Sun’s obituary articles ran without courtesy titles, despite our clear house style that news obituaries should carry them. (The things that happen when I take the day off.) Perhaps the editors on the copy desk think that courtesy titles might well be dispensed with, or perhaps they forgot what our house style is, or perhaps they gave up the struggle of trying to decide whether the playwright should be Mr. Pinter or Sir Harold.
Professor Zwicky also speculates in his post that the use of courtesy titles may also be used sardonically, in an exaggerated gesture of respect intended to undermine the subject: “The result is that, especially in writing, I sometimes don't know whether I'm being venerated or reviled by the use of courtesy titles.”
All due respect, Professor.