Back in the ‘70s, after I had become editor of the New Orleans States-Item’s women’s section, we newspaper people began considering another way to refer to the females whose names populated our pages.
Up until that time, women who were interviewed for news and feature stories had been assigned the honorific “Mrs.” in front of their husbands’ names, or “Miss” in front of their own names if they were unmarried. Feminists of the day maintained that it was nobody’s business whether a woman was married or not — hence the proposal of the much debated “Ms.” — and it was pointed out that like the title “Mr.” it did not indicate one’s marital status.
It should be noted here that many men didn’t react favorably to the idea of calling a woman “miz, “ for what reason I never figured out. I remember taking a late afternoon telephone phone call from an irate male reader who — after being greeted with “Bettye Anding, Living Section” — belligerently demanded to know whether he should address me as Miss, Mrs. or Ms. Since he was already mad about something, I just said, “Call me Mrs. Anding, please.”
Eventually, honorifics were dropped entirely in the pages of newspapers here, with females simply being referred to as, say, Betsy Lange Smith and males as John Robert Smith and by their surnames on second reference. And most people seemed to get comfortable with using Ms. during personal contact. It’s really a kind of handy title.
But have you noticed, particularly if you‘re a person of advanced years and grew up with other customs of address, the popular tendency to do away entirely with honorifics and sometimes even surnames? I’m just Bettye to many of those I come in contact with in stores and offices. I remember feeling insulted about 30 years ago — before I was even old — when a nurse in one of my doctors’ office bellowed out, “Bettye!” to summon me to the examining room.
And when the teeny-bopper in the electronics store asked me if I was Bettye the other day after she punched in my phone number on her computer and thus got my I.D., I didn’t like it.
However, since New Orleans is a city of several different cultures, I’m accorded the respect of being addressed as Miss Bettye by members of one or two of them. In my own cultural group in east Texas, adults who were particularly close to you, like your mother’s best friends or the next door neighbors or a favorite Sunday school teacher, were called Miss Wilma or Miss Audrey or Mr. John. It denoted a certain familiarity that isn’t always the case here: my optometrist calls me Miss Bettye as do some store clerks when they see the name on my credit card.
It doesn’t matter; I like it. I don’t mind being called by my first name if it’s preceded by a courtesy title, some of which I really enjoy. I liked it when waiters encountered on trips to Europe began calling me “Madame,” although I knew it was because I was steadily looking older.
But the telephone solicitor on the line recently failed to give me an honorific. He called me only “Bet-TIE,” an understandable error in light of this troublesome final vowel that Mother attached to my name at my birth. I guess if he hadn’t thought all Americans are casual folks, he’d have called me “Miss Bet-TIE.”
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.