What Miss really means

9th May 2014 at 01:00
The tradition of calling female teachers Miss and males Sir goes back centuries. It also undermines the status of women and passes prejudice down the generations, writes Adi Bloom

When Jennifer Coates began volunteering at her local secondary school, she was formally introduced to her new students. This was Professor Coates, the headteacher told them, formerly of the department of English language and linguistics at the University of Roehampton. She had lectured in countries including Australia, Germany, Denmark and the US. She was on the editorial board of a number of sociolinguistic journals.

"Good morning, Professor Coates," the children dutifully chorused. Then the headteacher left her alone with the students. A girl put up her hand. "Miss," she said. "Miss, can you help me?"

"I was extremely surprised," Coates says. "The men on the staff are all in their twenties and they were all called Sir. I didn't think there was this awful disparity between professorial status and these young teachers, but they're all Sir and I'm not. It's a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status."

Coates noticed the discrepancy because she was new to classroom life. For most school staff, however, it barely registers. So embedded in our pedagogical culture is the notion of female teacher as Miss and male teacher as Sir that few people even notice that the two titles are not equivalent.

"Sire is what you called the king," Coates says. "And Sir is a knight. There weren't women knights, but Miss is ridiculous: it doesn't match Sir at all. It's just one of the names you can call an unmarried woman."

Technically, the direct female equivalent of Sir would be Ma'am or possibly M'lady. The male parallel to Miss would obviously be Mr, although even this is not a direct equivalent as it gives no indication of the bearer's marital status.

"There are often pairs of words that, when you look at them, are not really pairs at all," says Sara Mills, a professor specialising in feminist linguistics at Sheffield Hallam University. "But because we use them every day, it makes them seem as though they're normal."

For example, "girl" is regularly used in opposition to "man". "We have a weatherman and a weathergirl," Mills says. "Often, girl is used for a full-grown woman, whereas boy isn't used for a full-grown man."

And then, Coates says, there are other pairs that began as linguistic equivalents but whose meanings have since diverged. Take, for example, "buddy" and "sissy", diminutives for "brother" and "sister" but no longer remotely equal. Or, strikingly, "master" and "mistress".

The difference between these two terms is something that Debbie Coslett, chief executive overseeing the three schools of the Brook Learning Trust in south-east England, knows all too well. When she was first appointed as a deputy headteacher, her official title was "second mistress". "I always called myself deputy head," she says. "I didn't like the term second mistress. I wasn't anyone's mistress."

And, Coates adds, words for women often develop pejorative and sexual connotations. "Which is just depressing, really. Historically, part of the history of the English language is sexism and the way that's encoded into the lexicon."

Stuck in a linguistic time warp

Indeed, the reasons for the disparity between Sir and Miss stretch back to the 16th century, according to education historian Jacob Middleton. The schoolmaster of that era was certainly male, but often of a lower social status than the children he was charged with teaching. Usually a middle-class boy who had gone on to university, he lacked the income for a life of leisure. So, to reinforce his authority among his upper-class pupils, he would insist on being referred to as Sir.

"It was the equivalent to someone in the army or a magistrate," Middleton says. "Servants referred to their masters as Sir. Children often called their father Sir. It was fairly generalised in society: a deferent calling someone Sir. So it was deliberately cultivated in schools to buttress the schoolmaster's sense of position."

By the 19th century, societal deference had begun to wane. Children, for example, were no longer expected to call their father Sir. "But it just gets held on to in school," Middleton adds. "It was so ingrained into interactions in school that it becomes unthinkingly retained."

Schoolmistresses, meanwhile, were also becoming a common feature of school life and were generally referred to as Ma'am. By the Victorian era, however, there was significant social pressure on female teachers to give up work after marriage. "Married women working were seen as undermining the established society," Middleton says. "They were in competition with married men."

In 1901, London schools ruled that they would not employ married female teachers. Throughout the early years of the 20th century, school boards around the country similarly began insisting that female teachers must be unmarried.

Teaching thus became something that a young woman did to occupy herself between girlhood and marriage. A school might employ a succession of misses, all equally young, inexperienced and replaceable. Sir, meanwhile, had an established career.

"Female teachers being Miss became a bit of a status issue," Middleton says. "A female teacher should be young, unmarried and probably less capable than a male teacher. There was a notion of them being less good than their male colleagues. The old notion of the female teacher being Ma'am gets swept away."

In the second half of the 20th century, it became acceptable again for married women to work as teachers, with a status supposedly equal to their male colleagues. "Still, you have this notion of the female teacher as Miss and the male teacher as Sir," Middleton says. "It's old-fashioned and it embodies the massive status disparity and sexism of former years."

Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees. "The thing about Sir is that it always conveys respect," she says. "It always means that this person is higher in status than me, and I owe them respect for that. Miss doesn't.

"You can use Miss disparagingly: `Hey, Miss, what do you think you're doing?' It says that you can never expect the respect that's due to a man because you're not a man and therefore not as good. It's very hard to create linguistic equality between people who, in many people's minds, aren't equal."

Of course, many will argue that such terms are simply the linguistic remnants of social values that no longer exist. In a world where "text" is now a verb and "remote" a noun, Sir in the geography department is as likely to pull rank over Miss as he is to put on chain mail and challenge Sir in the maths department to a staffroom jousting match.

Better than `hey' or `oi, you'

Despite her rebellion against being designated a mistress, Coslett does not consider there to be any difference between the sirs and misses at her schools. "I don't really think there's a disparity between them," she says. "It's a title, isn't it? My response is always that my name isn't Miss; it's Mrs Coslett.

"But if I'm in a school where students don't know me and they call me Miss, I'm fine with that. They're showing respect by giving me a title, rather than `hey' or `oi, you' or whatever. Sir is a term you might call a man. You wouldn't call anyone Mrs or Lady or Dame or whatever. That's just the way the English language works."

The issue here is the extent to which language colours our perceptions. In linguistics circles, this is a much-debated theory, with academics arguing that language simultaneously affects our view of the world and reflects how we already see it.

In non-linguistic circles, any debate on the issue tends to be sidetracked by someone inevitably announcing that "Eskimos have 50 words for snow". For the record, this statement is both racist and inaccurate. But the racism and the inaccuracy distract from its more fundamental truth. English speakers use the same word to describe falling snow, snow on the ground, slushy snow and icy snow. When we look at any of these phenomena, we see snow. The Sami language of Norway, Sweden and Finland, by contrast, has around 180 words for snow. When Sami speakers look at falling snow, therefore, they see something linguistically - and therefore inherently - quite distinct from snow on the ground.

Equally, Russian speakers do not refer to dark blue and light blue but to two separate colours with two separate names. When Russian speakers look at two shades of blue, therefore, they see two colours, as distinct as blue and green or red and orange would be to English speakers.

To emphasise this point, Coates cites a study in which two sets of pupils were presented with a chapter to read about the evolution of humanity. The first group was given a text using exclusively masculine terms: "early man" and "he". The second group was given a text using gender-neutral terms: "early human beings" and "they". Afterwards, the students were asked to match pictures to the text they had read. Those who had read the chapter with the masculine terms chose pictures depicting only men. Those who had read the gender-neutral chapter chose pictures of men and women.

"The words we have, the words we don't have, teach us to look at the world and the people in it in one way rather than another," Lakoff says. "At school, we have children who are still really only learning language. They pick it up very readily and then the next generation gets exposed to the prejudices of the previous generation."

Nonetheless, there are those who will always insist that there is no point arguing over semantics and that respect is earned by an individual, regardless of gender. "Whether consciously or not, people realise that language is power, and they're very nervous about any change," Lakoff says. "Of course, language changes all the time. But when it's being imposed, it can be seen as a power grab - especially when women, or anyone else who doesn't have power, are trying to grab it."

Change must come from above

Lakoff draws parallels with a California school board's attempt in the 1970s to allow black English (comprising creole and pidgin dialects) as an acceptable form of communication. "There was a huge amount of yelling and screaming," she explains. "A lot of people were saying, `How dare they say that their inferior form of language is equal to ours?'"

Similarly, feminists who began using the title Ms in the 1970s were attacked by people claiming that the word was unpronounceable. "They could say Mrs. They could say fizz," Lakoff says. "But Ms they choked on. These are the kinds of things people fight about because power is always involved."

For that reason, she believes that any change to school terminology would need to come from a school board or local authority: it would need to be enforced universally, rather than on a classroom-by-classroom basis. "A teacher could say, `I want you to call me so-and-so', but it would be very hard to impose," she says. "A lot of the kids in the class would have other ideas. Their parents might have other ideas.

"You can insist on it. But there's a sizeable portion of people who get so angry and so upset, it's bizarre. So it's easier to avoid the whole issue. The only alternative, really, is to have someone higher up make a rule."

The question, then, becomes what to call teachers in order to ensure equality. "You probably want to go down the route of referring to female teachers as Sir as well," Middleton says. "Raise the semantic status of women." He draws a comparison with university degrees: early female undergraduates worked towards a Lady Literate in Arts qualification, identical in all ways to a Bachelor of Arts. Eventually, lady literacy was phased out and all students earned a BA.

But according to Mills, of Sheffield Hallam, this is not an unproblematic solution. She points out that the terms now used for most university qualifications and positions - bachelor, master, fellow - are all unequivocally male. "It sets up a position that masculine is in a dominant position to feminine," she says. "If you want to take a degree as a woman, you do it as a fake man.

"These terms are so much part of the wallpaper that a lot of people don't even notice. But it does have a subliminal effect. The subliminal message is that the educational zone is a masculine one. Education is available for everyone but only if you do it on masculine terms."

Mills would prefer to abandon titles entirely and have pupils call teachers by their first names only. "That's the way things are moving," she says. "Americanisation and these camaraderie norms, where you move as quickly as possible to the most informal term. I think that's a driver of a lot of things in English culture and English language at the moment.

"Sometimes teachers find that they can control students more when they try to stress the similarities between them, rather than trying to keep as distant as possible."

Lakoff, meanwhile, calls for perhaps the simplest, most logical option: an insistence that all male teachers are referred to as Mr followed by their surname and all female teachers as Ms followed by their surname. But even this, she acknowledges, could only be imposed with the help of a local authority ruling.

Coates agrees. At the girls' school where she volunteers, the headteacher tends to refer to the pupils as "ladies". "I call it a euphemism," Coates says. "It's a way to avoid saying women. Even the word woman has got contaminated now." She sighs. "But it's not the fault of the words. It's the fault of the sexist society."

How teachers are addressed around the world

Australia: Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms + surname

China: surname + Lao-shi (meaning Teacher)

France: Monsieur (male) or Madame (female)

Germany: Herr (male) or Frau (female) + Professorsurname

India: Teacher, Madam or Sir

Japan: surname + Sensei (meaning Teacher) or sometimes just Sensei

Korea: full name + Seon-saeng-nim (meaning Teacher) or school subject + Seon-saeng-nim, or sometimes just Seon-saeng-nim

Mexico: Miss + name if female, or Professor + name if male

Pakistan: Miss or Sir, often appended to the first name or surname

Russia: first name and patronymic

Spain: first name, or Seo (an abbreviation from Seorita = Miss) for women, and Profe (an abbreviation from Profesor = Teacher) for men

Sweden: first names

US: Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms + surname

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