How To Never Address Anyone Again

These titles have been out of use since we stopped hanging witches.

You would think that since America doesn’t have a nobility, the historical use of titles would be very straightforward, but there are a few interesting uses that we don’t have anymore:

Goody/Goodwife and Goodman

If you’ve ever read The Crucible or other books based in Puritan America, you’ve probably come across the term Goodwife and its abbreviation Goody and have perhaps seen the term Goodman. Obviously these terms came with the colonists from England but seem to have been used mostly by the Puritans in New England. To an extent the term denoted church membership, as those who belonged to the church were “good.” They seem to have been titles denoting a slightly lesser social status than those addressed Master and Mistress, but still with some social standing in the community. The term fell out of use in the early 1700s.

Mistress and Master

Early forms of address for people of the middle and upper (but not noble) classes, precursors to Mister and Mrs. Mistress was used for both married and unmarried women. They fell out of use sometime in the 1700s as the democratization of language preferred Mister and Mrs. (which is still short for Mistress, but obviously pronounced Missus) or Miss for all people.

For a while, Mrs. was used as term of respect for women even if they weren’t married- such as calling the cook and housekeeper Mrs. Lastname to denote their rank even if they weren’t married. Miss also was derived from Mistress. An interesting historical fact about the use of the word Miss was that in a family, the eldest daughter would have use of the title Miss LastName and her younger sisters would be called Miss FirstName until the eldest married and the next was bumped up. The use of the term Master for the minor, male children of a house survived well into the 20th century.

During the period immediately following the Revolution, Americans were trying to figure out what they would call each other. Many advocated for a no-frills approach and an ending of most earlier courtesy titles. One wish was to change female titles to eliminate a distinction between married and unmarried women. For those who think the term Ms. originated in the 20th century, it has actually existed as the abbreviation for Mistress as long as Mrs. and Miss have been around.

How To Address Just About Anyone

Obama approves of using Ms. [Flickr user QueenofSpainErin]

Forms of address are complicated and fraught with peril because incorrect use can be seen as disrespectful. It’s a good thing that we have evolved from just Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Smith, but without one standard form, it gets a bit tricky. Women are insisting on not being defined by their marital status. Men are taking women’s names. There are same-sex couples to think about. Utter madness. Won’t someone please think of the great-grandmas stuck in their ways?

The rule of thumb is that if you know what someone prefers to be called, then call them that! (Shortcut: If they sent you a letter, see how they put their name on the return address. Boom. Easy.)  If you don’t know, then you can follow the basics:

A single person:

  • Professional titles like Dr. trump any of these (noble titles too, but c’mon you don’t know Sir Paul McCartney or Prince Harry anyway)

  • Mr. Horace Banks

  • Miss Flora Norwood (only for the VERY young- under 18)

  • Ms. Maude Fredericks (married or unmarried)

  • Mrs. Myrtle Hotchkiss (only if you are pretty sure they prefer Mrs.)

  • Mrs. Clarence Jacobs (only if you are CERTAIN they prefer it or if they are very old)

Interestingly in the case of a divorce, a woman shouldn’t use Mrs. Clarence Jacobs at all, though she can still use Mrs. Patricia Jacobs if she retains her married name. If she returns to her maiden name, then she shouldn’t use Mrs. Patricia Rogers, she should go back to Ms. Patricia Rogers. A widow is traditionally addressed with the same title she used when she was married, unless you know she prefers something else.

Juniors, Seconds, and Thirds:

If a man is named after his father, he uses the suffix junior, which is written out as: Edmund Jones, Jr. Ansel Whittleby II is a man that is named after an uncle or a grandfather. Thirds and fourths come after that. FUN FACT: the nicknames Trip and Trey are traditionally used for someone who is a third and Skip is used for someone named after a grandfather because the name “skips” a generation.

Couples and Groups:

A lot of this comes down to formality and preference. The more formal your correspondence, the more formal you should go. Note that in a heterosexual couple, the male title and name traditionally comes first, but either way is correct.

  • Mr. and Mrs. Seamus Finnegan (the most formal address for a heterosexual married couple. Many modern women object to the use of just the man’s name and so this is best used if you are sure that it is the preference. You should not use Ms. with this form- Mr. and Ms. Seamus Finnegan because the old fashioned use of the man’s name doesn’t really jive with the more modern Ms.)

  • Mr. and Mrs. Blanc (an alternate with no first names)

  • Mr. Taran Edwards and Ms. Beatrice Edwards (this is used if you wish to use both first names. Many people will write Mr. Taran and Ms. Beatrice Edwards, but this is less preferable because then it looks like you are addressing the first person as just Mr. Taran, which just looks a bit weird)

  • Mr. Patrick O’Malley and Ms. Bridget Sullivan/ Ms. Jennifer Cooper and Ms. Becky James (for an unmarried couple, a married couple where the woman kept her own name, gay/lesbian couples, roommates, etc. You should try to get both names on the same line, but it’s okay if it doesn’t fit and you have to put them on separate lines. For more formal events, roommates should get separate invitations, though most people aren’t too put off by being included together.)

  • Dr. Camilla Banks and Mr. Peter Partridge (a title like Dr. always outranks the Mr./Ms./Mrs. and the names should be separate, though if you are using the very old fashioned form: Dr. and Mrs. Peter Partridge is correct but Mr. and Dr. Peter Partridge isn’t. Two doctors with the same last name are addressed as The Doctors Partridge.)

  • Henry and Henrietta Henderson/ Jasmine Sultan and Rebecca Bainbridge (the same as above but more casual)

  • The Jones/The Jones Family (this is pretty casual but still useful if you don’t know the preferred title or want to invite the whole family)

Things We Don’t Have To Do Anymore:

Unwed mothers having to go by Mrs. Maidenname to avoid scrutiny. Because heavens to Betsy, what would the neighbors think?