There is currently a linguistic debate in France around the use of the word mademoiselle; a petition has been started demanding that administrative documents should no longer have the choice between mademoiselle and madame; they should only offer madame. I was listening to my favourite RTL programme, On refait le monde, and the journalists (3 men, 1 woman) were talking about the issue. The men felt very strongly that this debate was a waste of time, as the use or not of a word is completely unimportant compared to issues such as the continued discrimination of women in the workplace. I listened with great interest to their arguments. The men couldn’t understand why some women have such a problem with the word mademoiselle. A man in France is always monsieur, whether he is five years or fifty years old. For women, there is a distinction. Strictly speaking, mademoiselle is used to address an unmarried woman. A married woman is called madame.
Far from being a petty debate, the use of a particular word to talk about a person is a matter of great importance. Language is the way we construct the reality around us, an everyday tool which, as such, has a huge impact on our lives. Language, and words, can also be used in a very effective and insidious manner to influence perceptions and opinions. As a woman, every time I’m offered the mademoiselle option in administrative documents, I feel like I’m reverting to an age when I had no responsibilities, no job, no real life of my own. Being called mademoiselle feels completely incongruous to me – as if someone is treating me like a child. Because this is what the word means: an oiselle is a "silly young girl". Calling a woman mademoiselle is a very effective way to diminish her confidence and authority, and I’m not surprised that the instigator of the petition is a company owner who no doubt feels that being called mademoiselle undermines her worth as a businesswoman.
The other part of the debate around mademoiselle is that it carries with it a certain view of women: a mademoiselle is an unfinished product, an incomplete person, who will only be viewed as reaching adulthood through marriage. As such it can be argued that mademoiselle is a patriarchal word which belongs to a world in which women are not defined as individual beings but as belonging to a man: mademoiselles belong to their fathers until the day they’re given away to their husbands and become madames. I’m sure most readers will agree that this is an archaic view of the world. So why not follow the times and change language accordingly?
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that to me, language isn’t a sacred thing which must be frozen and protected at all cost. I think this is another example of how it needs to evolve to be relevant to our times, all the better to shape them. After all, our (often more pragmatic) Anglo-Saxon friends did it a long time ago when they created the now ubiquitous Ms.