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New Words #11: Greetings, Dear Lady!
Adventures in (im)polite address
It’s happening again. I’m getting LinkedIn messages from total strangers that open with phrases like “Hey, dear Nagle!” and “Greetings, dear lady!”
These greetings are jarring, especially in the context of a cold business contact, but it’s easy enough to imagine how they developed. If you’ve been taught that it is polite to use dear when opening a letter in English but also that Dear Ms. Nagle is too formal for online messages, you might attempt to strike a happy medium by doing a mash-up of formal and informal terms. And if it’s acceptable to address a crowd as “ladies and gentlemen,” then it must be polite to address an individual woman as “lady,” right? Well, not exactly.
Figuring out the unwritten rules of polite conversation in another language or culture is never a straightforward matter. I’ll never forget my first intermediate Spanish class in Santander, Spain, when the instructor winced as soon as we students greeted her. We’d all been taught to use usted when addressing a teacher, but we’d traveled to a place where túis appropriate in an educational setting. Our attempt at signaling respect made us sound impolite; our choice of words was holding our instructor at a distance when she was trying to be approachable.
But even among proficient speakers of the same language, regional usage varies; some speakers of English think ma’am is an appropriate way for children to address adult women in general, while others think ma’am is a euphemism for old lady. (There’s that word lady again, with its array of connotations!)
There’s a reason why William Alexander’s hilarious flowchart of reasons to use tu and vous in French (“Are you speaking to a child? Is the child like a prince or something?”) has been passed around the internet for almost a decade now. Whether or not the specifics of French address are of particular concern, we can all relate to the angst of trying to be polite but instead causing offense.
A Humble Suggestion
In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure.
The Invisible Art of Literary Editing is a new handbook that focuses on what authors Bryan Furuness and Sarah Layden call “the excellence phase” of editorial work at literary magazines and small presses, from reading and acquisitions to developmental and line editing. Drawing upon a wealth of experience on both sides of the editorial relationship, the authors emphasize the importance of timely communication (“As writers, Sarah and Bryan have submitted stories to magazines that have taken over a year to respond. ‘Timely’ is a fuzzy term, but not that damn fuzzy”) and provide examples of production timelines and positive editor-author communications for the benefit of new and aspiring editors.
I also have a couple of recommendations this month for literary translators and the literary translation-curious. First, check out Jeremy Tiang’s recent article for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop on translators’ (in)visibility. And please consider joining the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) on May 23 for Write the World, a day of live online panels on literary translators’ role in the publishing industry. Registration is just $15, and if you can’t make it to the live events, not to worry—recordings will be available.
Here, Look at My Cats
The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats, doing their funny sits.
See you back here soon!