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Mrs . Cavendish, I Presume? : One Doesn't Have to Be Dead to Merit a Courtesy Title in The Times, But It Helps

June 29, 1986|JACK SMITH

A woman who asks ano nymity--since the vulgar use of her family name in the press is the very subject she is writing about--complains that many newspapers no longer use such courtesy titles as Mr ., Mrs. and Miss .

This woman, whom I shall call Leigh Cavendish (Mrs. Sidney O. Cavendish) for purposes of illustration, explains as follows:

"You see, I was raised by a proper English lady who held that a lady's name appeared in the paper only at birth, marriage and death."

When her youngest daughter married, Mrs. Cavendish says, the wedding notices that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the San Diego Union were quite proper.

Only her local paper (a daily in San Diego County) departed from propriety in identifying the bride as "Prudence Cavendish (again, I am making up the name), daughter of Sidney and Leigh Cavendish."

"I know it's silly and inconsequential," she says. "I know many women have fought to have a separate identity. On the other hand, I've been Mrs. Sidney O. Cavendish for 42 years, and I like it. I've certainly earned it. What right does a newspaper have to define me . . . ?

"This is an anonymous letter, of course, since Mother would not have approved of the family name being bandied about in even your estimable column. . . . What ever happened to dignity, anyway?"

Mrs. Cavendish encloses a clipping from the Wall Street Journal reporting that 75% of newspapers have dropped courtesy titles from their news pages. (Both the Journal and the New York Times still use them.)

The story quotes Norman E. Isaacs, former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, as saying: "We've stripped all civility from people in society by this nonsense," agreeing, obviously, with Mrs. Cavendish.

Our policy here at The Times is to omit courtesy titles in news stories and in feature stories, except, explicitly, as set forth in "The Los Angeles Times Stylebook," in "society stories," where Mrs. , Miss or Ms. are "acceptable but not mandatory."

The stylebook also permits some other exceptions that I find curious: In obituaries, a woman must be referred to in a second reference as Mrs. , Miss or Ms . One way, then, to be given a courtesy title in The Times is to die. How an obituary writer is supposed to know whether a deceased woman would rather be eulogized as a Ms. , instead of one of the alternatives, I have no idea.

We may also give a woman a title if she has historically had one--like Mrs. Roosevelt, Mme. Chiang Kai-shek or Mrs. Lincoln--or if they are women of years, position or near-historic stature, such as Mrs. Onassis and Miss (Marian) Anderson. I don't know how copy editors can safely draw the line between ordinary women and those who merit titles.

I consider Chris Evert Lloyd to be the classiest person in sports today. I think our sports pages call her merely Lloyd. Doesn't she rate a Mrs. ?

Even more curious is a provision in our stylebook that women who are victims of crimes of violence or severe physical accidents should generally be referred to by courtesy titles, because "to do otherwise sounds callous and uncaring."

In other words, the way to get a courtesy title in The Times is to get into society, be of historic stature, or be raped, maimed or dead.

Otherwise, you are just Jones.

Naturally, this rule plays havoc with news stories involving both a man and his wife. Let us say that Claude Jones and his wife, Ellen Jones, are accused of larceny. Since we may not refer to Jones as Mr. Jones, or to his wife as Mrs. Jones, to avoid confusion we must refer to them by both their names throughout the story, a tedious business at best.

I must say I am not personally troubled by these strange rules because it is specified that columnists may safely use the courtesy titles to achieve special stylistic effects.

I thank God for this exception, since I am always referring to women who have signed their letters Mrs. , underlining the title, or, on the other hand, either Miss or Ms. , and it is obvious that they want to be so identified.

Ms. , however, is losing ground, according to another story in the Journal. It quotes then-editor-in-chief of Webster's New World Dictionary, David Guralnik, as saying: "The use of Ms. has plateaued. It hasn't replaced Miss or Mrs. and become the universally used title that we thought it would."

The article quoted a successful businesswoman as objecting to Ms. because "it doesn't accomplish anything beyond labeling you a militant," and another as saying that "I really don't care what I'm called as long as I'm getting paid the same as the man sitting next to me who's doing the same job."

Don't worry, Cavendish, you're always Mrs. to me.

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