Sir, Ma’am or Misén?

When I want to address someone politely, I often say something like, “Thank you, ma’am” or “You’re welcome, sir.” But what if I wish to extend a courteous reply to a person who doesn’t identify as male or female? Or when I’d like to be gracious to someone whose gender identity I don’t know? I would welcome consistent terminology (and guidance) for these situations, as well as for gender-neutral pronouns and honorifics.
Conformity is a dirty word to many; consistency sounds better. But dirty or not, when writing for public view, it is useful and often mandatory to use consistent terms, especially within a particular article, publication or field.
What if I used the words L.A.S.E.R., LASER and laser arbitrarily to mean the same thing throughout a single story? Pretty inconsistent, huh? Raises doubts about my credibility, right? And some readers might find some of those spellings confusing, not realizing that laser is an acronym.
Writers can use style guides to help them adhere to a standard and achieve consistency in their work. A popular example is the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, which is periodically updated. In November of last year, for example, editors of the AP Stylebook decided to remove “-phobia” from accepted use “in political or social contexts,” including “homophobia” and “Islamophobia.”
Some languages have multiple grammatical genders, but except for pronouns and a few other words, modern English does not have forms of words that change with gender. In the broadest terms, the word gender as applied to non-human (and non-anthropomorphized) things simply means variety. I’m not looking to rewrite a stylebook (yet) or impose rules over personal idiosyncratic flourishes and expression (ever) but simply to establish some public and institutional congruity.
Here are three suggestions to consider:
1. For a third term of address to be used alongside ma’am and sir, I suggest misén. Ma’am derives from the Latin mea domina (my lady), and sir derives from Latin senior (older). The neuter form of mea is meum. If we apply a truncated form of meum as the first syllable of our new term, we get me-. Attaching the stem of senior to this yields mesen. Adjusting for probable misuse of this new term as messin’, we could change the first E to an I (a common change during conjugation), resulting in misen. Finally, we could add a diacritic over the E to indicate a stressed syllable. The final result would be misén /mee-SEHN/ (my elder one).
Adoption of a term like this would not affect writers, except in their use of quotations. Although this is a well-reasoned synthesis, it is just one possible option.
2. For gender-neutral pronouns, I suggest bringing the many homophonic words in current use into orthographic alignment with the standard adoption of zie/zee/, zir/zeer/ and zirs/zeers/ for use alongside he/she, him/her and his/hers. (Using the plural they is anathema.)
3. To the honorifics list of Mr., Mrs., Miss and Ms., we could add M., pronounced as mirs /meerz/.
Input from transgender advocacy groups and linguists is welcomed. Perhaps eventually these or other terms will be recognized by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association Stylebook (nlgja.org/resources/stylebook), a supplement to major style guides like the AP Stylebook.
Words on a page are no substitute for real-life treatment with dignity, but language can play a part in the goal of mutual respect.

Bradley Osborn

Brad has been writing for Camp since 2004. His beat is mostly local features and general LGBT news. Common topics have included youth, faith and community. Although he holds an M.A. in journalism, he primarily considers himself to be a chemist, having studied and worked in biochemistry, quantitative analysis, quality assurance and the production of educational science texts. He's laconic, unintentionally enigmatic and often facetious. He enjoys irony, as well as things – but not animals, apparently – that are simultaneously beautiful and utilitarian. He and his cat, Charlie Parker, reside in downtown Kansas City, Mo. If you have a story idea for Brad, send him a note at bosborn@campkc.com.

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