One of the perks of having a blog is the occasional opportunity to vent on matters of personal pique. You have your own pet peeves; you don’t need mine; feel free to pass this post by.
On May 16, Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker advised the Journal’s readers:
“The Wall Street Journal is eliminating the routine use of honorifics, or courtesy titles, in its news pages ….
[T]he Journal has been one of the few news organizations to continue to use the titles, under our long-held belief that Mr., Ms. and so forth help us to maintain a polite tone. However, the trend among almost all news organizations and magazines has been to go without, as editors have concluded that the titles in news articles are becoming a vestige of a more-formal past, and that the flood of Mr., Ms., Mx. or Mrs. in sentences can slow down readers’ enjoyment of our writing.
For years, we weighed the tradition of using those titles against the need to be attuned to a more modern audience. In the end, we decided that dropping those titles is more in line with the way people communicate. It puts everyone on a more-equal footing and will help make our writing livelier and more approachable.”
As Ms. Tucker indicated, the Journal ceased using honorifics in its news pages on May 18. Since that time, when one of its news articles alludes to the President of the United States, the initial reference identifies him as “President Joe Biden,” but thereafter, Mr. Biden is merely called, “Biden.”
What Ms. Tucker and her team apparently view as an impediment to reader enjoyment, I consider an enhancement. What they view as facilitating reader acceptance, I consider a disappointing acquiescence. What they view as “more-equal,” “livelier,” and “approachable,” I consider a resort to a lower common denominator. While they consider honorifics to have maintained a “polite tone,” I consider them to maintain a respectful tone – not the same. While acknowledging that big time journalism must be financially viable if it is to survive, I would suggest that given the demographics of its readership, the Journal is merely bowing to a cruder culture.
While Ms. Tucker was careful to note that the Journal’s discontinuance of honorifics was limited to its news pages (the paper continues to use honorifics in its opinion pages, presumably seeking to maintain an elevated tone where the expression is more likely to incite passions), I would nonetheless maintain that decisions such as that which the Journal has made diminish the level of our discourse.
The manner in which we express ourselves is important. Decorum counts. The way one communicates has the power to elevate or diminish the substance of one’s message. Language matters. T.S. Eliot defined the man of letters as “the writer for whom his writing is primarily an art, who is as much concerned with style as with content; the understanding of whose writings, therefore, depends as much upon appreciation of style as upon comprehension of content.” In the public arena, one thrills to the linguistic artistry of an Abraham Lincoln or a Winston Churchill. I deplore our increasing use of shortcuts and slang. While I obviously use emojis in these pages as a mechanism to ensure that all reading understand that I realize that what I spout is Noise – and those that know me are well aware that my casual conversation contains expression that would in olden days have had one’s mother reaching for a bar of soap — I most ardently believe that serious issues should be addressed in terms appropriate to their import.
I agree with Ms. Tucker that use of honorifics hearkens back to “a more-formal past.” I would submit that we are the less for the abandonment of these and other such “vestiges.” Obviously, language evolves; but there is a difference between purpose and sloppiness. I am sympathetic to usages that have particular significance – for example, the use of the pronoun, “they,” to describe a transgender person; but I take issue with the use of the plural, “they,” as shorthand to allude to a single person that could be a man or woman (rather than referring to the person as, “s/he” or “him/her”).
Although I am acutely aware – and sympathize with those readers who have ruefully recognized – that many of the notes in these pages would be significantly shorter if I did away with honorifics and other seeming anachronisms, I hopefully will never resort to that; I believe that the tone one uses when addressing vital issues demands better. I believe that the only intentional omission of an honorific that occurs in these pages is for Adolf Hitler. (I have in at least one instance referred to the Nazi leader as “Herr” Hitler; I’d seen in Mr. Churchill’s speeches that he had done so on a few occasions, and decided that if he had not felt the honorific entirely inappropriate, I could employ it at least in the context of a particular post.) I am close to omitting any honorific for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite my deepest antipathy for former President Donald Trump’s illiberal inclinations and actions, his honorific is safe on this site given his standing as a former president and fellow American – unless he is someday convicted of seditious conspiracy.
As I said: a venting of personal pique. Am I a stodgy relic? Of course. But you already knew that. 😉