Prefixes in the 21st century

Dear Economist,

I came across a page on your style guide today via a Washington Post columnist who called you out on it.  It carries the following text:

The overriding principle is to treat people with respect. That usually means giving them the title they themselves adopt. But some titles are ugly (Ms), some misleading (all Italian graduates are Dr), and some tiresomely long (Mr Dr Dr Federal Sanitary-Inspector Schmidt). Do not therefore indulge people’s self-importance unless it would seem insulting not to.

So, your style guide in 2014 says “Ms” is ugly; and as for the preceding “but” and the last sentence, it is not clear what the intended message is, but it strongly suggests that women who use “Ms” are seeking indulgence of their self-importance and need not be thus indulged.

I know that you use Ms. very often in your own publication, as does everyone else.  These days Mrs. is getting rarer and Miss is almost unheard of; in the case of Angela Merkel, for instance, you sometimes seem to use “Ms” and sometimes “Mrs”, which, at the very least, is inconsistent.

There is also the basic question of accuracy: originally “Mrs” meant “wife of” and was generally followed by the husband’s full name (“Mrs Dennis Thatcher”); these days “Mrs Margaret Thatcher” is acceptable, but what about women who have chosen not to take their husbands’ names?  “Mrs Steffi Graf” sounds simply wrong and, yes, ugly (as does “Mrs Merkel” for that matter, since her current husband is not Mr Merkel), and “Miss Steffi Graf” is both wrong and condescending.   Indeed, this is the factor that caused the late New York Times columnist, William Safire, to change his mind and endorse “Ms” back in 1984, though it broke his heart to do so.

It is 30 years since Safire was converted, and about 40 years since the “Ms” abbreviation became widespread; perhaps it is now time to update your style guide?


Several people have told me that they read my blog but I don’t seem to post anymore. You can thank two unrelated threads on facebook, both dealing with language, for this one. They relate to two news items: a Manipuri being beaten up in Bangalore for not knowing Kannada, and the Tamil Nadu Government mandating Tamil as a subject in schools.

But before I start, here is a link to an old (2009) post by my late colleague Rahul Basu on the hue and cry on Marathi name-boards in Mumbai, and the lack of uproar thereof on the equivalent in Chennai — because Tamil boards are in place already without being mandated.

Now, here are quotes from the original poster of the FB thread discussing the Bangalore case: “Well I have lived all my life in Karnataka and I can’t still speak the language fluently. Come beat me!!!” and “I find this stress that I should learn a language because I live here ridiculous.”

And here is my theory: A few people like that poster don’t matter. There are people in Delhi who don’t know Hindi, people in London and New York who don’t know English, people in Paris who don’t know French. Some of them have spent their lives there.

But when it becomes the majority of the population — worse, when it becomes an aggressive ideology that you don’t NEED to learn the local language (as is the case in Mumbai), it is offensive to the local people (you are telling them that their language is inferior); and you are encouraging the linguistic chauvinists, including the violent fringe.

Mumbai and Maharashtra have lived with the Shiv Sena for decades. Similar right-wing “state-pride” parties have not come to power in Karnataka, but the more Kannada gets disrespected by people who move in from elsewhere, the more such parties will get empowered. The Shiv Sena, too, started with the same sort of vigilantism meted to the Manipuri in Bangalore, long before they actually came to power in the state government or formed alliances with national parties.

I am embarrassed that I lived in Bangalore for 6 years and did not learn the language. I will not make that mistake again.

On the flip side, I can see how much more enjoyable it is to be able to speak a little French when living in France. And, more recently, I learned a smattering of Italian for a week-long visit there, and though my able to communicate would largely have been a failure if it hadn’t been for Google Translate (and for the fact that many of them speak some French and English). the mere fact of my trying clearly influenced their reactions.

Now to the second item, about mandating Tamil as a subject in schools in Chennai. I found the news article ambiguous, but

  • If it were restricted to state board schools and it could be either first or second language, I wouldn’t have a problem and would in fact be totally in favour.
  • If (as the article suggests) it includes central board schools (CBSE and ICSE) then it depends on what is required. Having it as a third language, with very basic skills taught, would be fine. But there is no third language in class 10, and imposing one beyond the other subjects would be an unnecessary load.
  • I am definitely against imposing Tamil as a second or first language at that level in non-state-board schools: it is a challenging language and people moving here from other states should not have to make their children suffer (and, indeed, it will discourage such movement and, eventually, affect the economy).

But this move, again, seems to be a reaction to recent moves (by the Modi government in particular, but also by its predecessor) pushing Hindi on all parts of India. And this is again an example of what I said above in the context of Bangalore and Mumbai: disrespecting the local language will cause a reaction. This is not to justify the reaction, only to point out that the original cause was unjustifiable.

It is disgraceful that a student was beaten up in Bangalore for not knowing Kannada. It is alarming that Tamil Nadu is possibly playing with the education of students from other states in this way. But this does not mean that the people who refuse to learn Kannada, or the people who sit in Delhi and impose Hindi on others, are correct to do so. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say; but equally, a wrong doesn’t make a previous wrong right.