Miss-demeanours and other wrongs

Language is power. It can bring lies to light or cast a shadow over the truth; it can paint a vivid picture or draw a veil; it can be used to strengthen or to diminish.

This was highlighted to great effect in the past week by commentators dissecting press coverage of two recent events. The first was in the reporting of the conviction of publicist Max Clifford for sex offences, where the judge's forthright and explicit sentencing remarks were diluted for publication by a string of euphemisms that, in apparently trying to protect the public's sensibilities, served only to obfuscate and lessen the severity of Clifford's crimes.

The second, and no less shameful, episode involved the story of the kidnapping - or, more accurately, the abduction - during a physics exam of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, who will reportedly be sold and "forced into marriage". That's rape and enslavement in plain English.

One can, of course, argue that in themselves individual words hold no power; it is people who give them power. But words are not benign: they come layered with meaning, alive with nuance and laden with history.

No more so than in education. Take the honorifics Sir and Miss. Or master and mistress. Do they convey equal esteem and respect to you? To all intents and purposes they appear to be linguistic equivalents. Think about them, however, and you soon realise they are not equal at all. "But because we use them every day, it makes them seem as though they're normal," says Sara Mills, a professor specialising in feminist linguistics at Sheffield Hallam University, in our cover story.

If a "Miss" is so called because a female teacher had less social status centuries ago than a male teacher happily bestowed with a "Sir", does this really matter now? After all, language changes over time and these titles represent only a linguistic memory of norms long since gone.

If it plays any part in how those teachers are perceived, even subconsciously, by their peers and, more importantly, their students, then it matters very much indeed.

When in 2014 women account for some 74 per cent of the teaching workforce in England and 57 per cent worldwide, it is outrageous that there should be inequality of any kind. Status and parity of esteem are vital in any profession, and how one is addressed plays a huge part in that. This varies around the world. Countries such as Germany give all teachers great respect, addressing them as "FrauHerr Professor Surname". Others, such as Mexico and Spain, differentiate between the sexes. China calls them all "Surname Teacher" and Sweden, casually, by their first names.

How sad it is that a woman's journey through the education system already takes her down a very masculine road, earning a bachelor's degree, a master's degree and maybe even going on to become a fellow. It's a shame, then, that if her destination is the classroom she finds that is also a place that privileges the male.

Such language should not be forgiven as tradition, it is not charming and it puts women at an immediate disadvantage. It has no place in 21st-century schools and should be swept into the history whence it came.


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