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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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:37 PM | | Comments (22)


Though courtesy titles have never been used in High Tech (at least for the 20+ year's I've been in it,) there was once a sliding scale of naming that worked roughly like this.

First Level Manager

People used your first name as in, "Bill says we are so dead if we don't get this working."

Director Level

People used your full name as in, "Joe McCowski says he's confident we'll get it out on time."

VP and CEO Level

People used only your last name as in, "Anderson just told the board that we're already shipping it."

Of course, this has all gone away. Today everyone works on a first name basis including my current CEO, Wally.

I did see the late Hugh Jackman referred to as just "Jackman" in US Weekly.

Does the NY Times still attach titles inappropriately to people like the singer/actor Meat Loaf, as in Mr. Loaf? I really enjoyed when Dee Snyder of the band Twisted Sister testified before a Congressional committee and a senator referred to him as Mr. Sister. As I recall he had a thick Southern accent, so it was really "Mistuh Sistuh."

High Tech? Is there a Low Tech?

Mr. Owl Meat--Hugh Jackman is dead??

My personal favorite is when The NYT refers to Osama bin Laden as Mr. Bin Laden. It just sounds sooo ... wrong.

Mr. Owl Meat--Hugh Jackman is dead??

To me.

I work for a small paper in SW Colorado. A recent graduate, though, I've been exposed to numerous styles what with having to read various papers for current event quizzes.
I have never liked the NYT's style of always using courtesy titles, though I know it's tradition to them.
At my paper, we only use courtesy titles in local obituaries, the ones our reporter writes. For celebrities and/or stories that come across the wire, we use last names because they (usually) are well-known (as we did when we ran the Eartha Kitt and Harold Pinter stories). And I don't think Pinter was a 'sir'; he rejected the offer for knighthood.
Regarding the Dr. King reference – it would never fly here. We use "Dr." only when referencing someone who is a doctor practicing medicine, not anyone who has a Ph.D.
I'm pretty happy with those practices, but I can understand someone being frazzled seeing courtesy titles in one part of a paper and not in another.

Allie - which paper, if you don't mind?

Bucky: I work for The Durango Herald in Durango, Colo. It's a small-town, family-owned paper.

Allie - I'm originally from SW Colorado (Montrose & Gunnison) which is why I was asking. When I see Colorado on the Sun blogs, I get all excited.

Bucky, I was just looking at photos of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. That must be a sight to behold; I'd be too scared to look down. We sure don't have anything like that in Baltimore.

It saddens me that courtesy titles are treated with such derision. Courtesy cost nothing. I find the American practice of addressing people one does not know by their first name to be presumptuous and phoney. What I really hate is to be introduced as Robert X and immediately be addressed as Bob.

The assistant bank manager with whom I have periodic business dealings always addresses me as Mr X, and I return the courtesy. One of the reasons I now regularly read the New York Times web site is the use of courtesy titles.

Laura Lee - we have several things y'all don't have in Baltimore; I'd trade many of them to be near an ocean.

Not the mountains, though. I'd keep those. (The link is to a picture of the San Juans. I lived on the side the picture is taken from and Allie lives on the other side.)

Great picture, Buck! I've flown over the big Western mountains. My kids have both driven by, near and in them and report that I've missed the best show.

A story was relayed to me about my daughter. Someone - or a group of someones - had made a mountain out of, actually, much less than a molehill and were attemtping to dump the entire mess on her. Since my daughter is short and youthful and - truly a blessing! - does not say every single thing she thinks (gets that from her father) people really do believe that they can bully her. The line-in-the-sand had been crossed and Daughter was waving her arms, declaring, " know those Purple Mountains with the Majesty? I've SEEN those mountains and this ain't one of 'em!"

I guess not.

Maryland has mountains, the Appalachian Trail cuts right through the state. But your Rockies are pretty impressive.

I know someone from Durango, about a year or so ago he completed a motorcycle trip that took him from Barrow Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. I knew him when we were kids growing up in MD.

Bucky, thanks for the picture.
BTW, I think you're allowed to come back over to the Sandbox; it was only that one post about food stylin' from which you were banned.

RtSO, I for one appreciate your steadfast use of courtesy titles on the blogs. Some days it seems like the last remnant of civilization in the jungle of modern life.

I miss the good old days when The Sun had its own little blue-cover Style Book, and honorifics were required -- until a person was convicted of a crime. I findly recall the eager reporter stripping the 'Mr.'s from Mandel in his story when the jury vedict was returned on the then-suspended Maryland governor, or how Miss (Patricia) Hearst became, in second reference, "the Hearst woman."
And where is the roll-top desk when you need it?

And where is the roll-top desk when you need it?

Not in JMcI's office, as witness his vodeos!

Off the topic but since you mentioned it, why does Zwicky have his own blog now? I've been looking for an explanation on both Language Log and his new site, but I haven't seen anything. I notice that he still comments on LL but he hasn't continued to post.

Thank you, Ms Lee. For the several Sandboxers I have met I will talk to them using first names. But, for those I have not met or someone who has granted the privilege of using a first name, it is not that hard to use a courtesy title. I'm not sure if Ms Allie is rude, lazy or just doesn't care about courtesy. Oh, well.

Mr. (the) Single One, I am neither rude nor lazy. I simply think using courtesy titles in all stories would be overwhelming. Plus, I can't imagine the extra work we copy editors would have do adding Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., etc., to all the wire copy we use that doesn't include those titles.
In my personal life, however, I always refer to someone older than me as sir or ma'am or any other respectful address until I am given permission otherwise. I am the daughter of a Marine, so respect and courtesy has been an important part of my upbringing.

Ms Allie, I apologise for misinterpreting I have never liked the NYT's style of always using courtesy titles. I have an absolute abhorrence for the American custom of conversations with complete strangers beginning with first names (especially in business when the last name is known.) As we are discussing, the issue has spilled over to journalism.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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