What's in a name? Well, if you'll excuse my Shakespeare, what's in a name is a certain level of respect. And in the pursuit of straight news a person's name should be presented without sarcastic manipulation as well as with proper titles affixed. For instance, Hillary Clinton is properly either Mrs. Clinton or Senator Clinton. On the other hand, calling Hillary "Her Thighness" is not appropriate in a straight news story. It may be funny, of course, but it is not proper nor does it show the respect due the woman. (I know, I'm a killjoy) So, why does the New York Times and the L.A. Times both so often call Governor Sarah Palin Ms. all the time?
Could it be that they wish to subtly bestow as much disrespect as possible in their news stories on McCain's VP pick without going as far as calling her a name like the sarcastic jab "Her Thighness" might serve for Hillary? Could it be these supposedly serious news sources wish to attack Governor Palin and they don't think anyone will notice the slight of her marriage by the misuse of the title Ms.?
Let's use the results of a quick Google search of both the L.A.Times and the New York Times websites to find keywords that might illustrate the point here. And let's compare citations of Mrs. Palin with Mrs. Clinton to see if there is a difference in the level of respect shown the two women in the news. (Remember exact numbers change from search to search, but they rarely differ tremendously when searched over a short period of time)
Searching the New York Times shows the following results: Mrs. Clinton found 40,400 times Ms. Clinton found 909 times Senator Clinton/Sen. Clinton found 23,360 times Hillary Clinton found 21,500 times
Mrs. Palin found 297 times Ms. Palin found 3,370 times Governor Palin/Gov. Palin found 1,067 times Sarah Palin found 154,000 times
Searching the L.A. Times shows the following results: Mrs. Clinton found 192 times Ms. Clinton found 42 times Senator Clinton/Sen. Clinton found 2,432 times Hillary Clinton found 32,200 times
Mrs. Palin found 428 times Ms. Palin found 284 times Governor Palin/Gov. Palin found 2,260 times Sarah Palin found 35,900 times
Notice how the improper Ms. attached to Hillary Clinton's name is so small in usage by both papers? But also notice how correspondingly high the usage of Ms. for Sarah Palin is.
Now, to clear up the actual definition of the honorific Ms., it should be noted that it isn't just a word used to denote feminist sentiment as it is widely supposed today. It can be traced back to the 1700's and was used most often in a business capacity when it was not clear if the woman being addressed was married or not, and usually in written form, not spoken. It is also proper to use Ms. if a woman does not take her husband's name after marriage.
By the 1970's in the USA, however, the title Ms. also became used by women to show that they identified with the feminist movement. Sometimes, the title Ms. is also derisively attached to a woman's name by her detractors to denote that she is a militant feminist -- whether she really is or not.
To be sure, the usage of Ms. attached to Governor Sarah Palin, however, is completely improper on every level in a serious news story. We know that Palin took her husband's name in marriage and her marital status is absolutely without doubt and known by everyone. We also know she is not a supporter of militant feminism. So, attaching Ms. to Sarah Palin is simply as improper as it gets.
So, why are these two papers, both supposed to be leaders in American newspapers, misusing this title? Are these papers purposefully slighting Palin's marital status? Is this a subtle jab that they don't think anyone will notice?
Or, is the answer more prosaic and less conspiratorial? Is it because writing standards and grammar with our nation's top newspapers have fallen so low that many reporters and editors don't even know the difference between Ms. and Mrs.?
Either way, it does not speak well for our newspapers.
I report you say hmmmm.
(Photo credit: Boston Herald?AP) (H/T Plutarch at Freerepublic.com)