DEAR MISS MANNERS: When did it become usual to omit the titles Miss, Ms., Mrs. or Mr. in mail addresses? Most of the cards I receive are addressed simply with my first and last name.
GENTLE READER: It began with a lack of refinement on the part of recipients of letters. This was an unfortunate consequence of the well-intended change allowing married ladies flexibility in styling their formal names.
The trouble started two or three centuries ago, when it became standard to use the husband’s full name when addressing the wife, as in Mrs. Clarence Huckleberry. Miss Manners was amazed at how long it took for those ladies to notice the consequences: successive wives of the same person taking the same name, no sensible way to be addressed properly at work, and so on.
Then Ms. came back into use, as it had been for the previous centuries as an abbreviation for “Mistress,” the once-respectable honorific that went with first names regardless of marital status. That was an especially timely revival, as more brides were keeping their original names.
But this time, it arrived as an option, offering freedom, at last, from the rigidity of a single system.
And what did everyone do with this newly granted freedom? Ladies who used Ms. for themselves started offending their grandmothers by denying them the formal names they had always used, which was especially hurtful in the case of widows.
The situation was compounded by the difficulty of remembering everyone’s personal choice. Miss Manners still hears from those who are indignant at not being addressed as they wish, and those who are bewildered at being vilified for a simple mistake.
Many victims of this just got fed up and stopped using any courtesy titles. Miss Manners agrees that this is a crude solution to a problem that would not exist if people only gave one another the benefit of the doubt and showed some tolerance and flexibility.