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."