28 Jun 2022

What’s in a name?

As we settle down to enjoy another great pillar of the summer Season, the Wimbledon tennis tournament, we contemplate the changes that have occurred over the last few years in how women are addressed.

Up until this year, Wimbledon’s honours boards treated men and women differently. Men were identified by their initial and surname, whereas women were given a title (Mrs/Miss), and initial and – if they were married, – their husband’s surname.  Chris Evert, for example, who won the women’s singles in 1981 while she was married to John Lloyd, was credited as Mrs J.M. Lloyd for that victory.

Wimbledon, a bastion of British tradition, has reflected a practice that was long-established and codified in Debrett’s own Correct Form (first published in 1970), which declared that wives should be addressed by the prefix ‘Mrs’ and their husband’s initial and surname (“to be addressed by her own Christian name or initials implies that her marriage was dissolved. This mistake is frequently made”). This practice, which existed for centuries, came about because of the higher status accorded to married women in British society – indeed, young married women were given precedence over older single women on social occasions.

A grudging concession to modernity is made in the following footnote in the 1976 edition:

“Ladies, especially those engaged in business or the professions, who prefer not to disclose their marital status, have recently taken to using the prefix ‘Ms’ (pronounced ‘Muz’) in lieu of ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. In 1976 the Speaker of the House of Commons agreed to lady Members of Parliament styling themselves ‘Ms’ if they so wished. This terminology should not be used unless a lady has indicated this preference, because it offends many more than it pleases.”

Society has moved on since the 1970s and Debrett’s now reflects these changes on its own website (with a nod to tradition):

“Traditionally, it is considered incorrect for a married woman or a widow to be addressed by her own forename or initials, as this implies that her marriage has been dissolved. However, it is becoming increasingly customary for married women and widows to use their own forenames and initials.

Some women, especially in a professional context, choose to retain their maiden names, in which case many prefer the prefix ‘Ms’.”

Increasingly, as society becomes less formal, titles denoting women’s marital status are dispensed with altogether. Last year, there was an uproar amongst Australian fans when Ashleigh Bartley was referred to as Miss A. Bartley on the honours board. This will no longer be the case, reflecting a more egalitarian stance.

In general, it is becoming quite acceptable to dispense with titles altogether. In business correspondence, for example, it is quite frequent not to use ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Ms’ at all. This is our own ‘Business correspondence’ advice:

“Salutation considerations can be a matter of concern when commencing a business letter. Do you put ‘Dear John’? Or should it be Dear Mr Debrett’? It is becoming increasingly acceptable to put ‘Dear John Debrett’ instead, if you are writing to someone you have not met. To use the first name and family name is less formal and less impersonal than using ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ and the surname, but isn’t crudely over-friendly. It also deals with the difficult question of whether to address a female recipient as ‘Ms’, ‘Miss’ (old-fashioned, but preferred by some individuals), or ‘Mrs’.”


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