Southern U.S. use of "Miss [FirstName]" -- racial or class connotations?
September 11, 2012 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Southern Naming Conventions: Is there a race or class component to the Southern U.S. use of "Miss [FirstName]" (when used by adults to refer to other adults)? Which groups use this, when, and what does it connote when employed between/among races or social classes?

At my mother's work I was introduced to a (older, African American, originally Southern) administrative assistant who prefers to be called "Miss Janice". I have no problems with this and will use whatever form of address she would like for herself; I'm also not making any judgements. Her call, all the way.

That said, I (Midwesterner, white, quite a bit younger than her) felt slightly weird about it -- maybe in a paternalistic or infantilizing way or something? I'd like to read more about this and/or hear from Southerners what it means in different contexts (when used within a race/class group, or when used between two different races/classes, etc.); I'm open to the idea that it might just be me projecting weirdness onto it.

Though I have met counterexamples, it seems like most Southerners I have known that are referred to in this way are 1.) female, 2.) black, 3.) poor or working class, and 4.) employed in a domestic, childcare, or other "support" role. This could be confirmation bias on my part; I'm in no way steeped in the nuances of Southern culture.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Society & Culture (50 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Archetypal Northerner here: raised up North, lived up North my entire life, parents both born/bred up North, etc. I've seen this in two groups - women who work with children (every daycare I've ever used has been populated by "Miss"-es) and older black ladies, irregardless of socioeconomic class.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:28 AM on September 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seems to me a very Southern thing (I am in Texas).

As an added data point, my friends with children instruct their children to call me Miss FirstName (or sometimes Mrs. FirstName). They do the same thing whether or not the adult is male or female, and, when in the presence of their children, refer to me in that way themselves. It weirds me out, but I haven't asked anyone to change on my account.

Additionally, it seems to be more prevalent amongst my friends who have been in the teaching profession.
posted by blurker at 7:31 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Though I have met counterexamples, it seems like most Southerners I have known that are referred to in this way are 1.) female, 2.) black, 3.) poor or working class ... and therefore likely grew up in a culture where black men were called "boy" rather than "sir."

Which is a large part of why outward shows of respect tend to be appreciated.
posted by jaguar at 7:31 AM on September 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

When I was growing up in North Carolina, this form of address was used all the time when speaking to or about people older than myself (especially as a child, but also into my teens and early adulthood). It was just a combination of polite respect for your elders and a touch of informality -- using last names was mostly reserved for authoritarian school teachers. The connotations might well be different in a work environment where everyone is an adult, but it might also just be an extension of that norm.
posted by makeitso at 7:31 AM on September 11, 2012 [10 favorites]

In my experience it was an age thing - no one significantly younger should just go calling an older person by their first name as a sign of respect.
posted by ldthomps at 7:32 AM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here is one view that it is definitely racist.
posted by TedW at 7:32 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

+1 to everything julthumbscrew said. In fact, just this weekend I was thinking about this when I heard a white woman referred to as Miss so-and-so and it threw me off.
posted by The Michael The at 7:33 AM on September 11, 2012


In the not so distant past white southernors would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid addressing their black neighbors as Miss or Mister. First names were always used when white southerners could get away with it, and there were other strategies for when they couldn't.

The effects of the lengths they went through are still present in our lexicon, for example, MLK is to this day always referred to as Dr. Martin Luther King or Dr. King rather than Mr. King where it was previously a comprimise between the directly informal/offensive Martin and the proper title of Mister King. Addressing someone as Mister was to address them as a gentleman, and Miss was similarly for a Lady, in a sense that the South internalized from our shared British heritage that the North did not.

I'd go on using the form of address she prefers.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:34 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

On lack of preview TedW's link is a really good one to read.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:35 AM on September 11, 2012

Yankee here who went to school in the south. First, obviously, if you call someone Miss [First Name], it is going to be a female. Second, I have seen children of all races call older, gramdmotherly types, both black and white, Miss (something). It was generally in a context that the adults were friendly, but not great friends, and wanted the children to be on a less formal footing than "Mrs. Smith" but not so relaxed they could call her "Bell". Hence "Miss Bell".

Also, the movie "Driving Miss Daisy" keeps coming to mind, but not sure how that fits in.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:37 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is indeed a very southern thing. My family is midwestern, but I grew up in Georgia.

Family friends were always, always called "Miss FirstName" or "Mr. FirstName". This isn't how my parents raised my brother and me, but all of our friends used that naming convention, and my parents were called Miss Firstname an Mr Firstname by other kids they knew well. (Except by kids who had my mom as a teacher, in which case it was always Mrs. Lastname.) It's a friendly honorific.

What's especially weird is that, even though I never used it as a kid, there have been a few (three) times in my adult life that I've felt comfortable using it for others. It's always been when I've had a regular, extremely friendly professional (but not personal) relationship with an older, conservative-seeming woman. Someone who I know well enough that I could call them by their first name, but to whom I want to show the respect of an honorific.

Really odd now that I think of it.

As I experienced it, it's never been a race/class thing. My family is white, and most of the kids I knew growing up were either middle/upper middle class and white. I heard this across the board.
posted by phunniemee at 7:39 AM on September 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I live in an upper middle class neighborhood in Atlanta and all the kids refer to adult females this way..... especially the mom's of their peers. The older children address their teachers by Mrs. Ms. Mr. (last name) but the preschool teachers and everyone's Mom and other familiar people are called this. I'ts not a race or class's just a thing.
posted by pearlybob at 7:41 AM on September 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here is one view that it is definitely racist.

Along the same lines, sometimes when Black women of a certain age use the "Miss [first name]" construction toward non-Black women, it is not at all meant to be respectful or complimentary and is closer to being a roundabout way of calling someone a bitch. It's in the neighborhood of "Miss Ann".

I'd go on using the form of address she prefers.

I agree but care should be taken not to use it when there's a chance it could be considered offensive or possibly taken the wrong way.
posted by fuse theorem at 7:44 AM on September 11, 2012

Reluctant Southerner from Alabama here...

In my experience, it has always been simply a measure of respect that you afford to a woman who is older than you, regardless of race or social or economic status. Thinking that it has racial overtones sickens me a bit, actually. That had just never even occurred to me.
posted by BrianJ at 7:45 AM on September 11, 2012

Grew up in Texas here.

"Miss" is the address for an unmarried woman, or a woman whose marriage status you don't know. Sometimes it's used on its own as a polite, but generic address to a woman whose name isn't known.

It's also used familiarly, like "Hey, lady!" seems to be used commonly nowadays.
posted by cmoj at 7:46 AM on September 11, 2012

A data point for you: It's not *exclusively* a Southern thing. Note that here in suburban New York, at our nursery school, the kids used this construction for their teachers: Miss Firstname. There was one male teacher as well, and the kids called him Mister Firstname.

The teachers were largely white, early 20s, and native New Yorkers, though there were some exceptions (much older teachers, and Latina and Asian teachers, for example, but I don't believe any black teachers while we were there.) No Southerners in the bunch, even among the owners. No idea where the convention came from.
posted by Andrhia at 7:47 AM on September 11, 2012

Midwesterner transplanted to the South, specifically Auburn University.

Our students often call female faculty "Miss [FIRST NAME]," especially when the faculty member's terminal degree is other than a PhD. I cannot speak to the historic associations, but among your late teens and 20-somethings it is treated as a friendly, slightly casual, but entirely respectful means of address.
posted by LinnTate at 7:51 AM on September 11, 2012

Interesting related thing you might also be interested in:

My school had a sister school in Venezuela. All the teachers at that school were referred to as Tia/Tio Firstname. Tia is Spanish for aunt; tio is Spanish for uncle.

I have no idea how widespread this use is outside of that school or in Spanish-speaking countries in general, but I see it having a very similar meaning to Miss Firstname.
posted by phunniemee at 7:52 AM on September 11, 2012

In DC (almost the south), parents at my kid's preschool instructed children to call all adults 'Miss Whatever' and 'Mister Whatever'... But yes, this is also a thing in daycare.
posted by k8t at 7:53 AM on September 11, 2012

Response by poster: To refocus and restate:
  1. Interested only in usage among adults; not interested in kids at all.
  2. Yes, I know it's used by all races and all classes; looking primarily for what it connotes when used by members of different races or classes.
  3. Not really a "How is it used where YOU live?" question. Interested more in analyses of meaning than a list of conditions.
  4. Not looking for advice on how/what to call people -- I will use what she prefers -- looking for social implications of this usage
Many thanks.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 7:54 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Virginian, here. It's complex.

I see it often as a sign of respect for someone older or established. Single women get Miss + First Name; Married women get Mrs + Last Name. It's how I was taught to refer to my (white neighbors, most of whom were related) and babysitter as a child. One neighbor was upgraded to Aunt FirstName, but the others stayed as Miss.

As an adult, I am sometimes called Miss FirstName by acquaintances who like me and are greeting me semi-formally (walking into a shop I go to a lot; at an auction by a frequent coattender, at a party) or who have children I've been introduced to.

That said, you can't divorce race from the issue, and when it is used for women in a professional environment, even in the south, there are layers of meaning there. When used to address black women, sometimes it is white folks trying to demonstrate that they aren't racist via a show of courtesy. Sometimes it just is courtesy. Sometimes it is something else. (I've been in offices - as a customer - where just the black women were Miss or Miz FirstName and the white women were just FirstName. The effect was to put the black women at a remove. It can be used as an (often unconcious)form of othering/distancing .)

It's hard for me (and I'm white, so my perspective is probably skewed) to not see treatment of some black women in some professional environments - even in the recent past - still being affected by traditional Southern expectations of the role of single black women (to serve, to take care of, to get limited respect, to support the real work). In these cases, I do see the Miss as a way to wrap up the woman in an office version of that traditional role which puts them in a place where opportunities are lesser, expectations are different, and it does seem (to an outside observer) to be a lack of parity.
posted by julen at 8:01 AM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is seriously interesting to me. As a data point, I also grew in North Carolina, white and poor, and "Miss" was anybody older than us who wasn't a teacher, basically, though Sunday school teachers were Miss Firstname. As far as I knew, it never connoted any difference in race/class--it was applied equally to every non-teacher, non-relative adult. I want to sit down and read this thread, and the links, carefully.

I am still in NC, and I mostly see this now when I am talking to my son. I call all of our friends "Miss So-and-So" or "Mr. So-and-So," and his day care teachers are all Miss Firstname. It's too casual for my son to call, say, my friend Kristin by her first name, but it feels too formal to call her by her last name, so she's "Miss Kristin" when I talk to him about her.
posted by hought20 at 8:01 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ok. As a 41 year old, educated, white female in Atlanta, I do use this when addressing people older than me, black or white. In my upbringing and social circles, it is a sign of respect, once you are friends with someone. For example; You would call your grandmother's bridge partner by Mrs. (last name) the first few times you meet them but once you've known them a while, it becomes Miss (first name). The lady you see everyday at the Kroger, if she's older, can be addressed this way, whatever her color. That's just what we do.
posted by pearlybob at 8:04 AM on September 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

No distinction meant between the bridge partner and the lady at Kroger, I was just trying to illustrate a more casual but still respectful relationship.
posted by pearlybob at 8:08 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was born and raised in Georgia. My mother is a European immigrant, my father a Hoosier and former career military. So my parents were not Southerners. They were also not religious and, at the time, not monied. I never ran into this as a kid. I ran into it as an adult, usually in dealing with conservative, old fashioned "Southern Gentlemen" type cultures, such as a church-based preschool and the company I used to work for, where all of the white male founders were called "Mr. Firstname".

Southern culture is generally more friendly and less formal than the North, the Western US, European cultures and even the American military. My read on it is that it is a means to be both respectful and familiar. Use of a first name is a generally familiar form of address. This read as "affectionate and respectful" when refering to the company founders.

I am a white female. I was often refered to at work as Ms. Michele. Which sounds funny to write it that way, but the Southern "Miz" is different from the feminist use of that. I heard a died in the wool Southerner once suggest it was a means to meld Miss and Mrs. so as to cover both bases. It only suggested to me I wasn't young enough to be called "miss".

As for the comments about blacks being called this as a form of othering, my experience has been that women get this honorific at work more than men, I believe as a means to make a show of respect to women in the work place who are still striving for real equality in that regard. I would guess that in many cases blacks receive this honorific for the same reason: to demonstrate respect and kind of make up for or combat the general poor history in that regard.
posted by Michele in California at 8:20 AM on September 11, 2012

Almost universally, the use of formality in language is a marker of high social standing in the person being addressed, while informality is a marker of either intimacy or a marker of low social standing that is considered mortally offensive by the egalitarian modern world. American English is somewhat weird in how indirect and subtle this effect can get, but it is still there and was very explicit in the American South not so long ago.

Generally in the modern United States "Miss" is a title for referring to girls under 18 or so in practice. However, theoretically Miss is also for use as a title by unmarried adult women, though this is less common now some still prefer it. In this usage the change from Miss to Mrs. switched with the use of the husbands surname and functioned as an acknowledgement of marital status and hasn't had real class implications outside of the American South for centuries. In the South however, within living memory the use of a formal title at all was very much a class marker that was made strictly unavailable along racial lines. As I mentioned upthread, white southerners would go to extraordinary linguistic lengths ton ever refer to their black neighbors with a title of Mr., Mrs., or Miss, as that would acknowledge class standing that, under the social mores behind Jim Crow, was supposed to be denied to blacks.

Miss specifically was sometimes used irrespective of marital status with a woman's first name in direct or indirect address in a way that combined formality with informality. It had the effect of simultaneously acknowledging high class status through its use of formal title while also taking advantage of low gender status through its informal use of the first name. Miss Ellen from Gone with the Wind or Miss Ellie from Dallas are examples. It itself decends from a British practice in upper class households for servants to address or refer to the unmarried ladies of the household, and occasionally in family-run businesses in the same way, though it was also used to address servants when they were addressed by title at all.

In the modern day the way in which these two indicators of formality and informality mix are jumbled to the point of being totally unpredictable. For example, its use as a way for children to address their female child-care givers, regardless of marital status, that others have mentioned. It makes a kind of logical sense for children not yet ready for formal Teacher/Student relationships, as it is informal recognizing the more intimate and uncodified relationship while at the same time acknowledging higher status. This is indeed a red herring to your question, which is unfortunately not completely answerable by us because the real answer of what the specific mix of formality and informality means to your mother’s coworker will really be very specific to her.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:31 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another Atlantan here, and I hear the "Miss XXX" nearly everywhere.

For sure when kids address adults. And sometimes between adults. I agree, it's typically a form of respect combined with informality, which is sort of Southern in general.

We don't really use it among co-workers, but more in deference to older folks, or people we're interacting with in service or the trades.

I would say it's a bit patronizing, but some folks expect and appreciate the appelation and what does it cost me?

So my neighbor is Miss Jeri, she's got about 30 years on me. My dry cleaner is Mr. Tom and he does a nice pressed shirt. And Miss Lisa at the drive thru at McDonalds knows how I like my iced coffee.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:38 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my (black) community, it's seen as a combined sign of respect and familiarity that is usually, but not always, necessarily connected to age. For example, I work as an academic advisor at a college with a large black population. Even though some of the students I work with are at least twice my age, they often call me "Ms. First Name", perhaps because it's less formal and distant than "Ms. Last Name", but not as chummy and personal as just plain "First Name".

On the flip side, I once addressed one of my older students by her first name, and she snapped at me, "I prefer 'Ms. XYZ'!" Ohhhkay......

Interestingly enough, these titles seem to be a gendered phenomenon, at least in my experience. In my youth, I referred to all of the adult men and women to whom I was not related as Mr. or Ms. Even though I am now in my late 20s, I continue to do so for these same women, but not the men. "Ms. Mary" is still "Ms. Mary", but her husband, "Mr. Allan" is now just "Allan" to me. "Mrs." is never used, even if the woman is married.

For context, I grew up in the Midwest, but am only a generation removed from my southern roots.
posted by chara at 8:41 AM on September 11, 2012

Born, raised and live in Virginia.

One more data point:

This is a common, and Southern thing. I use it a lot. But it also seems to be a very Asian thing to me. I've been called "Mister Benny" by many Asians and Filipinos; enough to notice it, anyway.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:45 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I hear it most often from black coworkers addressing a white woman coworker who is older than all of them. I'm in Virginia, and while I was encouraged to say yes ma'am and no sir while growing up, I've never used the Miss Firstname construction myself.

Something else that might be a related data point: my girlfriend briefly worked for a historically black university. She noted that students there never called their professors and instructors by their first names, and instead called them Mr. or Mrs. Lastname out of respect.
posted by emelenjr at 8:59 AM on September 11, 2012

My deep Southern (white) ex-inlaws used the Miss honoriffic when referring to their adult (white) female friends to us. (They didn't have non-white friends.) My ex-husband would refer to his friends' mothers as "Miss Firstname" where as I (white, raised in NJ) would want to call them "Mrs. or Ms. Lastname."

But also...the older African-American ladies in my apartment building here in Southern NJ are called "Miss Firstname" by younger adults of all races, including me. Miss Catherine next door was introduced to me as such by a white woman older than me when I moved in. The older white ladies in my building have all insisted I call them by just their first names.

Miss Catherine passed in July. I miss her dearly.

posted by kimberussell at 9:02 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it's Southern. My boyfriend's entire family calls me "Miss Kaity" or "Miss Kaitlin" when addressing me to the little ones (e.g. "Miss Kaity wants to read you a book!") and they're all white people from the South.

My boyfriend and his siblings also call their parents Ma'am and Sir sometimes, which seems particularly Southern to me as well.
posted by k8lin at 9:12 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I lived in the US, there was an elderly black woman in my building whom everyone referred to as "Miss Rose". It was a mark of respect - it would have been too familiar for the 20- and 30-somethings to call her simply "Rose". But it was also more casual/friendly than calling her "Miss LASTNAME" (which we didn't actually know).

It's an extension of the respect children are expected to give adults in some cultures -- I also tutored kids at a place where the white, mostly northerner volunteers all went by their first names, but some of the black parents insisted that their kids add the honorific "Miss" to our first names.
posted by jb at 9:27 AM on September 11, 2012

My (white) grandparents owned a grocery store in a very poor part of town and were called "Mr. [firstname]" and "Ms. [firstname] -- or sometimes Ms. [grandpa's first name]" by their mostly black clientele of all ages. It was definitely a combination of familiarity and respect. Some customers called them Mr./Ms. [lastname], but especially among longtime customers, people who had done work for them, or people they otherwise knew well, it was usually the first name.

In use among social peers, the respect element frequently comes from age. When my dad referred to a friend's wife as "Ms. [firstname]" she was quietly offended and felt he was addressing her that way as a comment on her age.

With a couple of my friends, we occasionally refer to each other as "Miss [firstname]" -- kind of jokingly, but somehow more affectionate than just calling each other [firstname] all by itself. We are all white, middle/upper middle class, and in professional jobs. (Sometimes now I'll call the Dr. [firstname], since they've both got their Ph.D.s.)

All these data points are for native Texans from big cities.
posted by katemonster at 9:32 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The effects of the lengths they went through are still present in our lexicon, for example, MLK is to this day always referred to as Dr. Martin Luther King or Dr. King rather than Mr. King where it was previously a comprimise between the directly informal/offensive Martin and the proper title of Mister King.

Also, Martin Luther King had a Ph. D.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:33 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

But it also seems to be a very Asian thing to me.

I’ve also experienced this a lot and surprised it wasn’t mentioned more. It’s also surprising that it would be taken as a demeaning racial thing that whites do to blacks. I’ve mostly experienced it from black women (and to a lesser extent, men) talking to white men and women and thought it might be an old relic of deference.

I think it’s funny, friendly, and respectful. I don’t like people I don’t know calling me by my first name. My parents were very poor white southerners and my father was very sensitive to this and thought it was disrespectful. "Mr. Firstname" solves that without being too formal.
posted by bongo_x at 9:48 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Born in the south 53 years ago, transplanted to the north a couple of decades back.

I've always found it to signal a difference in status. I mean, the default would be that either (1) I call you Alice and you call me Bob, or (2) I call you Ms Jones and you call me Mr. Smith. "Miss Alice" would get used if some status difference between us made both "Alice" and "Ms Jones" inappropriate. That status difference might be racist -- If I were white and you were black, and not close enough for first names, calling you "Miss Jones" might once have been seen as too formal, leading to "Miss Alice." Or (and more commonly) the status difference might be because of age (or wealth or power): if you were 60 and I was 20, and we were too close for the icy "Miss Jones" I might call you "Miss Alice." So, in general, I guess, when a difference in status calls for an intermediate level of respect between "Miss Jones" and "Alice," possibly but not usually a race-based status difference.

The Southern US can be almost Japanese in terms of the exact implications of an honorific in exact circumstances. Without knowing the coworker, it's hard to have any idea why she prefers this.
posted by tyllwin at 10:03 AM on September 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Virginian, here. It's complex.

+1. Here is my anecdata. For a year in college, I was in a performance group in Baltimore that had members between about 16 and 35 years old, but mostly early twenties; a staff of eight or so people between about 25 and 40; and some volunteers who were members' parents, so upwards of 50. A few of the members called some of the staff and volunteers Mr./Miss [regardless of marital status] Firstname, and some of those same staff people called each other Mr./Miss Firstname. Other staff members were only ever called Firstname. What I remember from being a member is that we had about the same kind of relationship with all the staff and volunteers: friendly and very familiar, but respectful. I'm pretty sure that what set apart the three staff who got called Mr./Miss Firstname is that they were all originally from Baltimore, had been working together for years, and were a sort of in-group within an in-group (the staff) within a big in-group (the whole organization). For what it's worth, two of the three are black. I've been in other groups like this, also in the South and with people of many different races and classes, and this one was the only place I've heard the Mr./Miss Firstname treatment. I'm white and from the suburbs, so I didn't really have much context for this. I could never figure out exactly what the race or class implications of Mr./Miss were; there seemed to be something there, but it was covert, and nobody ever expressed a preference for using Mr./Miss or not using it. (To me, it didn't seem right to address some authority figures differently than others, so I usually just called everyone Firstname.)
posted by clavicle at 10:30 AM on September 11, 2012

I'm a Floridian raised by New Yorkers - who were and are often completely baffled by this Miss/Mister thing.

One sidenote: the folks I know who use this construct tend to smooth it so Miss/Mrs turns into Miz. That way all your bases are covered. Maybe it's a Cracker* thing, I don't know.

As I understand and use it, it's a form of informal respect. You say Miz/Mister to acknowledge and grant respect due to age (I have always seen this happening with at least one generational gap between the people involved) and then Firstname to acknowledge familiarity. Miz/Mister Lastname is too formal because they are close and you know them; Firstname by itself is too informal given the age difference. So you meet in the middle.

An example: a friend of mine was raised by her great-aunt. I've known Friend and Great-Aunt for about fifteen years. At this point it would be ridiculously formal - and distant - to call Great-Aunt Miz Lastname; instead I call her Miz Firstname, or on occasion Miz Fond Nickname.

*Florida Cracker is a distinct dialect/accent and to my ears a bit sharper than the soft Georgia/Alabama sounds.
posted by cmyk at 10:39 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband is from Georgia, and just about everyone I've met in his parents' hometown and environs (white or black) uses this form of address. Even my 70-year-old father-in-law addressed my Dad as "Mr. George" ('George' was Dad's first name) instead of just "George" because my Dad was older than my FIL. My husband has been frequenting the junk store, er, antique mall in the county since he was a pup, and he still respectfully addresses the elderly gent who owns it as "Mr. Charlie" whenever we stop by, as does my FIL. As I stood near the casket at my MIL's funeral greeting mourners, just about every person, young or old, fondly recalled "Miz Dottie" memories to me; only close family called her simply "Dottie."
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:18 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think this can be explained without reference to kids. Historically, I think this originated with the practice of using "Miss Firstname" or "Mister Firstname" as a way for a domestic servant to refer to the children of the house where she worked, maintaining the hierarchy where the children are superior to the "help." The servants would be referred to by the "masters" or householders by their first name (ie, "Carla"). The "masters" of the house would be referred to as Ma'am, Sir, or Mister or Misses (Mrs.) Lastname. At some point (gradually?), I think it became common to refer to domestic help as Miss Firstname or Mister Firstname as a sign of, or acquiescence to, egalitarianism (ie, it was a step up for an adult of the serving class to be seen as equal to a child of the employing class).

So, I think the historical meaning is implicitly demeaning--to refer to adults as equivalent to children. The actual usage today certainly may not reflect this underlying dynamic in all situations and places, but I think that is the gist of it. Also, I haven't explicitly referred to race here, but when seen this way, I think it is fairly obvious how race fits in.

Here's an example of why I think that the historical meaning does inform modern usage, at least in some instances: In my experience in the Northeastern US, school teachers are always Mr. or Mrs. Lastname, but daycare workers are always Miss Firstname. I think this is because the latter form of childcare is historically much closer to domestic work and is still almost exclusively female, compared to teaching, which started out in the US as almost exclusively male, then more and more female, then became more professionalized, etc.
posted by nequalsone at 11:29 AM on September 11, 2012

Hopefully I am not crossing over into GYOB territory, but I want to say one more thing. A title is usually a sign of formality and respect, while a first name is usually a sign of informality and can be a sign of disrespect. Combining them creates a lot of opportunity to convey a lot of different things in different situations. The origin of a term cannot fully explain contemporary usage, but it is part of the story. Although I'm sure we could all come up with lots of counter-examples, I don't think language often completely escapes its origins. This can either become a philosophical question, on one hand, or a matter of figuring out what the usage means in a very specific case, on the other.
posted by nequalsone at 11:56 AM on September 11, 2012

I have been thinking more about this. My experience has been it seems to be an upper class, religious,s, conservative thing, which I alluded to earlier but didn't quite spell out. I would guess that where it becomes a black thing is that, historically, blacks were initially slaves and, later, servants in upper class white households.

My (German immigrant) mother did domestic work for well off families for years. So while it likely is true that servants were expected to call children Miss or Mr. Firstname, the reality is that servants who work long hours inside your home, especially if they either care for your children or prepare or serve food, are typically trusted and respected to some degree. The relationship to such a servant is complex. On the one hand, it is an odd kind of very personal, intimate relationship. On the other hand, it is a paid laborer. On the other other hand, while you need to trust them and respect them, you don't want to invert who is really in power here.

People who care for your kids or handle your food can abuse your children or poison you. Historically, there have been cases of poisonings by a servant or slave who was dissatisfied with something. So it is a delicate matter and these individuals typically are genuinely trusted and esteemed. My mother knew where the $10k in cash was in one house. She tripped across it while cleaning. She knew the security code to the house. She knew some things that the adult children were not privy to.

So if you worked as a domestic, you were in a position of trust, kind of like judges, postal workers and certain other modern positions which might not make you rich but will get you a certain amount of social recognition for having a special degree of trustworthiness. Very likely, this was where Southern blacks were exposed to what I view as "genteel" Southern culture. They likely then borrowed certain things from it and added their own spin, which it is likely most whites would not know of much less comprehend.

(They did a study once and found the members of a second class culture, in this case blacks, were well versed in practices of bith their own and the first class culture, in this case whites. In contrast, the members of the first class culture were oblivious. I am white so I am fairly confident I am not privy to any additional nuances added later by blacks.)
posted by Michele in California at 12:08 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was born and raised in eastern North Carolina. My family is white and lower-middle-class but we lived at times in both an incredibly poor rural area and a wealthier neighborhood where some people still had maids, and this was and is a very common thing across the board. In general it's a way to show respect to an elder or respected person who you were close enough to that calling them "Miss Lastname" would be weird, but not close enough to in age or socially to be able to address them by their first name alone. It's pretty common for kids to use this for their elders, of course, but remains a sign of respect or social distance into adulthood. And by "social distance" I mean intimacy more than social class, though of course lack of intimacy and a different social class can be strongly related.

To illustrate what it means in context: I grew up calling my godmother Miss June because she's my elder--but my adult father also calls her Miss June because she's his elder as well. My hometown librarian and I were quite friendly, and because of that she invited me to call her Miss Jacquie rather than Miss Brown--but because our friendship never went beyond the bounds of the library, there's still a social distance between us, so I'd never dream of just calling her Jacquie. Similarly, when I was waiting tables, I called my friendly regulars Miss This and Mr. That, unless they were also come-over-for-dinner-on-Sundays friends, in which case I called them by their first name. My best friend's parents were Miss Lisa and Mr. Ray, but even though we shared dinners and vacations and I was about as close to them as I was to my own parents, they were still my best friend's parents and both respect-for-elders and social distance played into the fact that I'd feel totally weird calling them Lisa and Ray.

So for me it was always a sign of respect rather than a way to infantilize, paternalize, or otherwise look down upon someone.

Now, I did have (usually much older) teachers in middle school and high school who used to quite snarkily call me "Miss Misty" at the beginning of a dressing-down, but that was clearly a separate thing from the normal usage. I always got the impression that they called me that as a way of implying I was putting on airs, being too big for my britches, etc. etc., though it may have just been that the alliteration made for a great rant.
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:35 PM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I was raised in Philadelphia, but with a fair amount of Southerners in the family. As a child, Miss or Mr. was used for any adult who did not have another title (Aunt, Uncle, Nana, Mom). In my family, children did not address adults by their first names. It was either Miss or Ma'am or Mr. or Sir. We were upper-middle class, but we used those title for absolutely every adult without regard to social class.

As an adult, I still use it frequently for acquaintances like the cashier at the market. Normally, I just address those people with Ma'am or Sir.
posted by 26.2 at 2:38 PM on September 11, 2012

I am a middleaged white Southerner. (Southeastern NC.) I prefer younger people to call me Ms. Connie because I am an informal person and the informality denotes closeness, whereas Mrs. Reagan, while more formal, is also more standoffish.

Where I work, there is an older florist in the back that I call Miz Edith. I could call her just Edith but again, the honorific is to show respect.

In my opinion, whether among people of the same race or people of different races talking to each other, this is a way to convey respect and closeness at the same time. You can use the first name of someone if you are fairly close in age/status, and if you are old enough technically it is okay to be on a first name basis with folks, but if someone is older, that extra Miz is there to show that respect.

To be TOO formal, paradoxically, sometimes, is a bit rude and distant.

Whoever said the South is a bit like Japan is not far off the mark.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:42 PM on September 11, 2012

All of the ladies in my daughter's daycare (Alameda, CA) are called Miss Firstname.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:02 PM on September 11, 2012

I don't have any answer for this, but the woman who is the main receptionist at my old doctor's office (in Oakland) went by Miss Dee. She was probably 40-ish, African American, with a strong Southern accent.

This question is just interesting to me and I hope my anecdote is not a derail.
posted by waitangi at 4:07 PM on September 11, 2012

rhiannonstone: Now, I did have (usually much older) teachers in middle school and high school who used to quite snarkily call me "Miss Misty" at the beginning of a dressing-down, but that was clearly a separate thing from the normal usage. I always got the impression that they called me that as a way of implying I was putting on airs, being too big for my britches, etc. etc., though it may have just been that the alliteration made for a great rant.

My grandmother (born & raised in NYC by Estonians, so no American South connection there) did the exact same thing to me. If I got bratty or demanding, out came the Miss Cmyk and that meant I needed to cool it. Kind of like she was saying to me -- "what am I, the hired help? Stop that." It worked.
posted by cmyk at 6:38 PM on September 11, 2012

I don't know if this will help you at all, perhaps as a data point, but I'm originally from PA. The first time I came across being called Miss [dearwassily] was when I moved to Florida to live with my boyfriend. This is how his mother's side of the family all refer to me. My boyfriend was born and raised here in Florida, but his mother's side of the family all moved down here from Ohio. We are all white, though they may be more working class, while I may be more middle class (though who knows, exactly, what creates that distinction). The second time I have come across this is with my boss at work. He, too, is white, from Indiana, and is at least mid-middle class if not upper-middle. So in my (admittedly) limited experience, it is possibly just a way of showing cordiality or respect. Yes, I am younger than those who call me Miss [dearwassily], but at 29, I'm pretty firmly into that adult territory, and it's never come across as infantilizing or condescending to me. I personally think it's strange they call me Miss [dearwassily] instead of just [dearwassily], but I've never questioned it, and never asked them not to call me that. And again, in my experience, with all parties being white, race hasn't been a part of it, though that doesn't mean that that's never been a part of it, or isn't a part of it, for other people.
posted by dearwassily at 11:07 AM on November 9, 2012

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