Monday, November 8, 2021

The misterectomy

 When I joined The Baltimore Sun in 1986, the paper, seeing itself as a country cousin of The New York Times, used honorifics in its news stories. Men were mistered, unless they had military, civil, or ecclesiastical rank, and reporters had to determine whether the women they wrote about were to be Miss, Mrs., or Ms. 

But the main burden of enforcing the style rules fell on the copy desk, which, in addition to maintaining courtesy titles in local copy, had to insert them in wire service copy. 

Then there were the debates on the desk. Historical figures did not get titles (no Mr. Caesar). How long did a notable have to be dead to shed their title? I once suggested when there had been time for the flesh to fall from the bones. 

House style also denied courtesy titles to criminals. More debate. Did the person have to commit a felony, or did a misdemeanor count? The title could be restored once the debt to society was paid, but was the mister restored after a prison sentence was completed, or when probation was completed? Engraved in memory was the case of the governor of Maryland who lost his title after being convicted of a felony but got it back when an appeals court overturned his conviction. 

In the early 1990s, the paper went on a brief binge of asking the employees how the work could be improved. (It worked well in the pressroom, where employees suggested many efficiencies, less well in the departments whose managers clung tightly to their authority.) Even the copy desk was included. 

When the copy editors brought forth their proposals, courtesy titles topped the list. While the justification of using courtesy titles was that the formality conferred respect, the copy editors argued that the practice was stuffy and archaic, and also busywork that distracted from more significant editing. The editor, John S. Carroll, nodded, and with a wave of his hand courtesy titles were dismissed from The Sun

The remain, as a lingering mark of formality and respect, in the paper's obituaries, when the staff remembers to include them.