Let me start this diatribe with the assurance that I am in favour of offering gender neutral honorifics. If we must have honorifics at all, an archaic practice that only survives because it has become part of what is commonly known as a ‘police description’, then what business is it of someone across a bank counter or government office desk whether I am married or not or what gender I am? I’m a customer or client, perhaps someone paying my taxes. My gender is simply not relevant.
Honorifics are, of course, those prefixes we are all familiar with. Mr, Miss, Mrs and these days, Ms. Those of us who have reached a certain age will remember when “Ms” came into common use. It was the 1970s feminist movement that objected to being identified by whether a woman was married or not. They came up with a workable alternative, Ms. A female. Whether she’s married or not is none of your business.
A historian could tell you that the term actually has precedence as far back as the 17th century and had a brief revival in 1961 as an option for writing business letters when the marital status of a female is unknown, but it didn’t really catch on in common usage until 1972 when the US Government Printing Office approved using “Ms” in official government documents.
This term didn’t enter mainstream language overnight. Changes in language never do. For many years “Ms” was only used by feminists and lesbians, and any woman who used it risked being identified as both whether it applied or not. As late as the 1990s some women found it offensive, usually married women. I didn’t start using it myself until I had my surname legally changed to that of a partner to whom I was not married, at which time it became an easy solution to ambiguity.
Now the term is in accepted common use in all business correspondence, but the journey for that acceptance took thirty years.
In March, 2017, HSBC Bank in the UK announced that it was rolling out a series of gender neutral honorifics for their customers to choose from.
Now, while I’m in support of the idea of offering an alternative, I found this list a little overblown and some of the choices I felt took the idea into the realm of Cosplay. As a writer, I could see a single agreed term entering language and storytelling over time, but some of these belong in the realm of Fantasy stories and at least one already has direct associations with a well known imaginary world, George R.R. Martin’s stories of Ice and Fire.
Let’s take the terms individually.
Mx (pronounced “mix” or “mux”)
I first heard this term about fifteen years ago. A little research tells me it was first introduced in the late 1970s. Unlike “Ms”, it didn’t catch on in mainstream language. Why not? I think because the ambiguity of pronunciation makes it awkward. If anyone had asked my opinion at the time, I might have suggested “Mn” instead. Nevertheless, I have no objection to this one coming into use. Like “Ms” before it, it will take time to trip off the tongue easily, but that’s just part of language evolution.
Ind (an abbreviation of individual)
This feels like something from a Dystopian story. I’ve seen “Citizen” and “Comrade” used similarly. We are all individuals of course, but I rank this superfluous as a title.
I’ve used this in business correspondence myself. There are times when you don’t know the gender of the person you are writing to and the one thing you don’t want to do is to get it wrong! If HSBC wants to offer multiple options, I think this one is perfectly workable.
Misc (an abbreviation of miscellaneous)
Now it’s getting silly. Even if a person identifies as a non-defined gender, this doesn’t really work as a prefix. With Mx and M on offer, this is just a cry for attention.
Mre (an abbreviation for “mystery”)
I’m going to go as far as to dub this one “stupid”. Seriously? No one is THAT concerned with your gender or gender identity, trust me on this. Besides, an MRE is what they call Army travel rations.
Msr (represents a combination of Miss/Sir)
This is actually already in use, if you’re French (Monsieur). It’s definitely male.
No explanation was offered with this one and I wasn’t able to turn up any previous background. I actually rather like it. It’s more pronounceable than Mx. According to Wikipedia, a myr is a unit of a quantity of 1,000,000 years.
Pr (pronounced “per”. An abbreviation of person)
Like Ind, this has that Dystopian ring to it. Someone with that strong a need to assert themselves as a person likely has deep-seated issues.
Sai (pronounced “sigh”)
An oriental weapon with two prongs, but it sounds sort of cool. I might use it in a Fantasy novel sometime if I have oriental characters, or perhaps among elves.
Ser (pronounced “sair”)
Popularised by Game of Thrones and it’s sequels, it’s the proper address for a knight, usually male. Whether the one female knight, Brienne should also be addressed as Ser has come up in the plot. The point being, this would be appropriate for ComicCon. Not really at your local bank.
So there you have it, the new list of honorifics offered by HSBC bank and my personal opinions on them. Will it catch on with other institutions? I could be tempted to use Myr myself. Who says you have to be transgender to use a gender neutral honorific? But I do think they’ve overdone this with a list this long. Feel free to disagree with me, I welcome all intelligent conversation on controversial subjects.
I’m also happy to embrace new terms within reason, though I draw the line at atrocities to basic grammar. As a writer, grammatical structure is inherent in everything I do professionally and of great personal importance to me, so when a segment of the population asks me to respect their choice of address, I ask them in return to respect my choice to speak like someone who is literate, rather than insisting I use a form of address like Miscellaneous or grammatically misuse the pronoun “they”. But that’s another subject for another day.
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