The progressive prescriptivist

23 Jun

If you ever wondered what “Mx” meant – as in the courtesy title, “Mx Pat Smith” – you can now look it up. Stan Carey at Sentence First writes that the dictionary for which he works, Macmillan, has created an entry for it for the first time.

Mx is like Ms, but whereas Ms is a title that is non-specific about marital status, Mx is a title that is non-specific about sex. It’s intended for trans people, intersex people and others who would prefer not to be specific, at least in formal correspondence, about gender.

Although it’s completely new to me, Mx appears to have been invented, according to a well-researched post by Nat Titman, as long ago as the late 1970s. The lexicographer Jonathan Dent attributes its first use to a US magazine in 1977, and observes: “The early proponents of the term seem to have had gender politics as their central concern [and] saw the title as one which could sidestep the perceived sexism of the traditional ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’.”

But the key here is that, whoever invented it and whenever it happened, it was invented: that is to say, it was consciously proposed as a new word in the hope of introducing it into the language. Mx has no roots in Middle English, nor was it naturally appropriated from 18th-century Persian. It is a suggestion, a proposal, an innovation; in other words, it is prescriptivist.

In its identification of a point of weakness in the language and its determination to do something about it, it is almost Fowlerian in spirit; indeed, it calls to mind Fowler’s quote in Modern English Usage:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the most modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

Exactly the same was true, 114 years ago, about Ms. As the linguist Ben Zimmer notes in the New York Times, when the term was proposed, it too was an innovation – another artificial construct designed to bridge an obvious gap in the language. Just a few years after the publication of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, an anonymous resident of Massachusetts wrote in the Springfield Sunday Republican:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill … Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.

And so he went on to propose the use of Ms as a simple, embarrassment-avoiding alternative: “For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

A few years ago, there was an interesting discussion on You Don’t Say about the politics of linguistics: specifically, whether prescriptivists were rightwing and descriptivists leftwing. Left-of-centre commentators pointed out that prescriptivists spent much of their time being explicitly conservative: defending old usages and deriding new ones. Right-of-centre commentators objected to the what they saw as the hypocrisy of political correctness, which they perceived as the “prescriptivism of the left”. What the invention of Mx, and the success of Ms, suggest is that the linguistic-political divide is more complex than simple left-and-right.

In the decades that followed the proposal of “Ms”, the term provoked political debate. It was mocked as modish, or defended as equitable: a classic left-right disagreement. But that debate did not take place between prescriptivists and descriptivists; it happened between two different schools of prescriptivism, conservative and progressive – one group who wanted to preserve the language, the other who wanted to improve it. Engineering change and enforcing traditions are both equally alien to descriptivism, which, in its purest form, simply observes popularity and usage regardless of antecedents.

The procedure by which words get into a dictionary, of course, remains a descriptivist one: Macmillan would not have considered Mx for inclusion simply on the basis of one magazine editor’s decision. Usage, and evidence of usage, is the only measure of success or failure for an innovation. Prescriptivism proposes, descriptivism disposes.

But that process is not as easily projected onto the left-versus-right political map as it might seem – for example, modern linguistics might have waited indefinitely for a non-sexist alternative to “chairman” if a progressive prescriptivist had not suggested “chair”. Descriptivism can be laissez-faire as well as inclusive; prescriptivists can innovate as much as they preserve.

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7 Responses to “The progressive prescriptivist”

  1. Jeff June 26, 2015 at 8:59 pm #

    Fair points but in the case of Mx, being as it avoids *any* distinction, why not just drop the title altogether?

    • edlatham June 26, 2015 at 9:24 pm #

      I guess – although I suppose it confers the distinction of courtesy?

  2. Steve Dunham July 1, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

    Here in Virginia, USA, Ms. has fallen victim to usage. I started to realize this when somebody at a doctor’s office called the house asking for (phonetically rendered) “Miss Dunham.” I said there were three (unmarried daughters living with us). Which one? It turned out that the called wanted Mrs. Dunham, I realized afterwards that the caller had pronounced Ms. as “miss” (in that case, there would have been four Ms. Dunhams to choose from).

    So I wrote “Ms.” on a piece of paper and asked the girls (all of them grown) how it’s pronounced, and they all said “miss”! Apparently the title Ms., though widely used, has been passed along without instructions on how to pronounce it, and a lot of people are saying it the way it looks. We can come up with prescriptions to fix the language, but once something gets into common usage, it may not follow our instructions.

    • Steve Dunham July 1, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

      I typed “the called” instead of “the caller.”

    • edlatham July 1, 2015 at 9:06 pm #

      It’s come full circle!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Hits and misses | Ten minutes past deadline - December 21, 2015

    […] honorifics in English at all.  The market in words has failed. So “Mx” – proposed, just like “Ms” a century go, as an unashamed neologism to fill a gap – has found its way into the Macmillan and Oxford dictionaries and (who knows?) may find a slew […]

  2. Nation shall prescribe unto nation | Ten minutes past deadline - July 11, 2017

    […] Ms and Mx as neutral  honorifics. It is this second kind of prescriptivism, which one might call activist or progressive prescriptivism, that Kapur is tweeting about […]

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