Rethinking Courtesy Titles in Obituaries

It’s time to show respect by not overemphasizing gender.

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By Steve Bien-Aimé • March 20, 2019

When we die, we lose much of our say in how we want our lives, achievements, and identities framed in obituaries—that power is given to editors and journalists, who often follow industry norms.

Even though most U.S. publications have stopped using courtesy titles, exceptions are sometimes made for obituaries, where Mr., Ms., and so on are used to show respect. For example, Philly.com, the website for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, generally does not use honorifics; however, in a 2018 obit for legendary Philadelphia Eagles player Tommy McDonald, an honorific was used—for him and no one else. Honorifics also hold a precious place in certain cultural contexts, such as racial or regional. Using titles in the South, for example, can be a matter of respect and even racial equality.

Even though most U.S. publications have stopped using courtesy titles, exceptions are sometimes made for obituaries.

Gendered honorifics, however, can have unintended harms. For some, the discomfort arises from the inherent emphasis on one part of a person—gender—when we go through life with many identities. Language shapes how we interpret reality, so placing a gender modifier before a person’s name gives the impression that we should be viewed through gender first and that all other characteristics fall in descending importance. The resulting issue is that some people don’t want to be viewed primarily through their gender. Also, courtesy titles for men and women are unequal: Before the use of Ms., the courtesy titles Miss and Mrs. revealed a woman’s marital status when married and unmarried men shared the status-free Mr.

The courtesy titles with longevity are ones without a gender bias. Because of systemic erasure of women’s achievements, some women with a PhD have added Dr. to their Twitter handles. My Northern Kentucky University colleague Alina Campan, an associate professor in computer science, says that while Mrs. is too general for her, she would want to be called Professor in an obituary because “My career defines a lot of who I am. I act in this role, and it has become an inherent part of my personality.”

Placing a gender modifier before a person’s name gives the impression that we should be viewed through gender first.

Associated Press Stylebook editor Paula Froke noted that AP style generally recommends not to use courtesy titles. However, she said by email that “If the person was a medical doctor, we would use Dr. as the title on first reference in an obituary just as we would in any other kind of story. Same with the Rev., when relevant.” Journalism bellwether The New York Times, which still uses courtesy titles except in certain sections, permits alternate courtesy titles, said the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, in an email. Mx., for example, has seen increasing acceptance for those failed by gender binaries or don’t believe in gendered honorifics.

Though journalists have begun using Mx., its usage is drawing attention in different ways. After The New York Times used Mx. in 2015, it explained its decision in a column: “People inside and outside the newsroom wondered if ‘Mx.’—an unfamiliar term to many—had suddenly taken its place alongside ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’ in our stylebook’s entry on courtesy titles. The short answer is no. Or not yet. Or perhaps, ask me again in a while. Things are changing fast in this area.”

The courtesy titles with longevity are ones without a gender bias.

Recognizing societal changes, the 2017 Associated Press Stylebook called for editors and journalists to modify their language: “In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”

Introducing new terms and meanings can be a balancing act. While the visibility of Mx. indicates progress, explaining why Mx. was used for specific people might inadvertently overemphasize an aspect that is not germane to the story, such as the person’s gender. However, providing detailed explanations might be part of necessary growing pains as it takes a conscious effort to normalize new practices. As such, some educators are bringing the knowledge into the classroom: One substitute teacher engages with students about gender diversity by introducing themself with Mx.

Mx., for example, has seen increasing acceptance for those failed by gender binaries or don’t believe in gendered honorifics.

It’s important to differentiate between someone highlighting one of their identities (such as gender) versus an outsider’s description presenting their own bias (such as that gender is the primary identity). Habitual use of gendered honorifics reinforce one identity over and over, which causes other elements of one’s life to be overlooked. Determining the salience of something so personal as identity is hard—for some it’s their job, for others it’s their family roles—especially when the subject isn’t here to clarify. Thus, it’s time to end gendered courtesy titles in obits. As linguistic conventions evolve (as they always do), we must remember our complexity as individuals and to respect one another by not overemphasizing one identity in lieu of others.

Steve is smiling in a sky-blue button-down shirt.Steve Bien-Aimé is an assistant professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University. Before receiving his doctorate from Penn State’s College of Communications, Steve worked as a copy editor at The News Journal in Delaware and The Baltimore Sun and served in a variety of functions at FOXSports.com, departing as deputy NFL editor. His research interests include race and gender portrayals in news and sports media.

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