Dear Miss Critic,
"The anguish that most of us have observed for some time now has been caused not by the fact that the South is alienated from the rest of the country, but by the fact that we are not alienated enough . . . that we are being forced out not only of our many sins, but of our few virtues."
It was wholly a pleasure to be upbraided by so concise a correspondent. Usually those I've offended their name is Legion go on and on at repetitive length. You, in welcome contrast, get right to the point and stop. Thank you. To quote your e-mail: "I would like to point out that referring to Senator Hillary Clinton as Miss Hillary is not only disrespectful, it is ignorant. Don't do it again."
Yes, ma'am, I understand. I have been told as much before, yet I persist in my antiquated ways. Worse, I intend to continue doing so. I fear I am incorrigible. Old dog, new tricks and all that.
Why am I so adamant on this point? It's not easy to explain. Custom, tradition, the morals and manners of a place . . . they are either understood or not, it seems to me, and are not subject to reason any more than is music or beauty or the sweet return of a Southern spring is. Some gifts just are. They constitute the grace notes of life, and I will not be reasoned out of them, any more than, I fear, I could reason you into this one.
To have to explain this usage is to destroy its charm. What was it Louis Armstrong said about jazz that if you have to have it explained, you'll never understand it? It is the unspoken laws that are the most convincing those one has grown accustomed to since childhood, like saying "sir" and "ma'am," or rising at the approach of a lady or elder.
How to explain such simple courtesies without insulting those who need them explained? There is no way to do so without sounding condescending, that is, without being impolite and since the very object of using a courtesy title with a first name is to be polite, I would defeat my own purpose.
I have an unpalatable choice in these circumstances: I can give up the old usage, which I'm not about to. (The 21st century needs all the grace notes it can retain.) I can ignore your e-mail, which would be rude. Or I can defend a practice that should need no defense. Which seems the least objectionable course, embarrassing as it is. For no gentleman relishes disagreeing with, let alone correcting, a lady.
But because yours is not the first such complaint I've received in these oh-so-advanced times, I feel obliged to defend a practice that, in a better world, would need no defense. For it will never be a better world if, one by one, we abandon the graces of the one we have.
So here goes: When speaking of or to someone who is of an older generation, or who just holds a high rank, like U.S. Senator, and with whom one enjoys a long familiarity or at least acquaintance, it would be too familiar to use just a first name, but cold, distant, standoffish, much too formal, to refer to them as, say, Mr. or Mrs. Clinton.
Instead, we of a certain incorrigible generation combine the courtesy title with their first name, to show both respect and warmth and, yes, maybe a certain playfulness as in Miss Sally, Mister Jack, or, yes, Miss Hillary.
Yes, the same usage may have other connotations when addressing a peer or child. Such as instruction. ("Master Jacob, use your fork, not your fingers!") As a teenager, I knew I'd crossed the line when I heard my mother address me, with an ironic lilt in her voice, as "Mister Paul." On the other hand, at the Chinese restaurant I frequent, I tend to be addressed respectfully, and I hope affectionately, as Mister Paul. It would be boorish of me to take offense and ignorant.
In short, circumstances alter not just cases but the significance of certain phrases. Part of the beauty of this particular usage is its ambiguity, allowing the speaker to transmit a mix of feelings from deference to bemusement, and maybe a few in between.
It would have been unnatural on my part to invariably refer to a former first lady of Arkansas, someone I'd written about for years, and whom I occasionally ran across here in Little Rock, as Senator or Mrs. Clinton.
I remember with particular warmth an evening many years ago when by chance we came across the Clintons discussing an algebra problem with their daughter, a then quite young Miss Chelsea yes, Miss Chelsea at a restaurant on University Avenue. It may have been the best conversation I ever had with any of the Clintons. Maybe because it was politics-free. Shall I now revert to Mr. and Mrs.? It would sound . . . cold, distant, standoffish, much too formal. Almost like a snub.
Another reason it was wholly a pleasure to get your e-mail and diktat ("Don't do it again") is that it brought back a memory of a young reporter from New York in my salad days at the Pine Bluff Commercial here in Arkansas. He, too, took umbrage at my antiquated habits like opening doors for ladies. I am not even sure he approved of my referring to the publisher emeritus of the paper, Mr. E.W. Freeman Sr., as Mister Wroe.
My young friend was a nice enough fellow nicer than most, truth to tell, and certainly nicer than I. He was just a stranger in a strange land. And it all must have struck him like some parody of plantation life. He finally could take it no more. I'm not sure which of my eccentricities (here we call them manners) finally set him off.
"That is a mindset," he once told me, in an imperative tone not unlike yours, "that must be crushed!" Quite the progressive, he was. Have you noticed? Sweet-talking utopians, in their eagerness to enforce their brave new vision, soon enough start giving orders to the rest of us.
I hope this explanation has not bored you overmuch. I regret it was necessary, not least because it reduces a charming and useful turn of phrase to a tedious, almost sociological explication. In the process, the charm is lost. The South, our poor ever-vanishing South, has come to a pretty pass if so simple a courtesy requires so wordy an explanation.
Also, please forgive me if I'm not very good at obeying orders. ("Don't do it again.") I am an American.
I'm also a Southerner, and as such rather attached to the few still extant graces of everyday life that can make living in these latitudes something of a succession of small delights. And subtle signals.
With sincere respect, miss, and all the good will in the world,