Monday, October 3, 2011

Demoiselle or dame, that is the question

The great Jacques Brel (in my humble opinion, one of the most amazing French-language artists of all time) once created a song that was based solely upon the Latin declension of the word for rose, rosa.

When I started to learn Latin, I was an 11-year-old kid at Grafton High School. Funnily, I've never forgotten my first lesson. Our teacher, Robert Sinclair (whom I met for the last time when I was out in Sydney in 2006, not long before his death), taught us the declension of the noun dominus, meaning master.

Now, if I had been brought up in the Roman Catholic church, I might have encountered the term dominus as a familiar reference to the Lord Jesus. As it was, I learned that a dominus (master), in the Roman context, was a man in charge of a domus (household). In modern English, we have everyday words from these two origins: the adjective "dominant" is derived from dominus, whereas "domestic" comes from domus. On the surface, it looks a bit like a chicken and egg situation. Which came first, the dominus or the domus? A master only comes into existence when there is a household over which he rules. But a household only exists as such when it has been created by the presence of a master. The Roman statesman and orator Cicero evoked the relationship between these two concepts: nec domo dominus, sed domino domus honestanda est (It is not the house that must honor the master, but the master who must honor the house).

Ever since I've been living in France, I've admired a basic feature of French language usage: the existence of convenient words that normally enable anyone to speak directly and politely to any other person. If the latter person is an adult male, you address him as "monsieur"; if an adult female, you address her as "madame". If you wish to speak to an officer with captaincy rank, say, you address him as "mon capitaine". Back in the days when religion was an omnipresent phenomenon in France, you addressed a priest as "mon père", and a nun as "ma sœur". In all these terms and expressions, the "mon" and "ma" prefixes mean "my", but this use of a possessive adjective is a mere sign of politeness, as in the old-fashioned English terms milord and milady. In a French context, when a citizen addresses a high-ranking military man as "mon général", that usage does not imply that the citizen is truly under the orders of the general. In the same way, an atheist such as myself sees no conflict in addressing a priest as "mon père". He's certainly not my personal reverend father (as if I were a member of his congregation), but rather a professional churchman, often of a friendly disposition, with whom I sympathize to the extent of recognizing, at least, his social status as a priest.

Unfortunately, in certain administrative sectors of French society, there's a nasty habit of retaining the term "mademoiselle" for female adults who don't happen to be officially married. This situation is blatantly wrong, since the marital status of a woman or a man should not impinge upon their social identity. So, I agree with French feminists that there are solid grounds for eradicating, in a draconian manner, the term "mademoiselle". But it would be a great pity to throw out the baby with the bath water. What I'm trying to say is that terms of address such as "monsieur", "madame" and "mademoiselle" have an etymology that deserves respect, since they are mirrors of a certain history of France.

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