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Miss Manners: No meaning to ‘American commoner’

Wed., April 2, 2014, midnight

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am confused upon hearing references to “American commoners,” as in, “Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry the American commoner Wallis Simpson.”

Does the phrase “American commoner” have any meaning? If so, can you explain it to me and perhaps offer me an example of an American non-commoner?

GENTLE READER: When Article I of the U.S. Constitution banned “title(s) of nobility,” it had the side effect of rendering the designation “commoner” meaningless. It is nonsense to have the one without the other.

Therefore, the only meaning of the phrase “American commoner” is as a sneer, used in circles where the term “American” was once sufficient condemnation. A character considered equally unsavory by the same set, the “American heiress,” once brightened British impoverishment by casting a shadow on the family escutcheon. This feat, however, was possible only when more sunlight shone on the Empire.

Today, that same heiress and her cash are more likely to be thought of as your American non-commoner.

It should be noted that Americans often make an opposite mistake about English commoners. In that system, a living nobleman’s children are commoners, although they are addressed with the courtesy titles of “lord” and “lady.” And yes, this includes your favorite television characters.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Every so often, a stranger buttonholes me and tells me that I look “just like” someone else they know. (I am a woman in my late 30s, but this has been happening for some time.) They then wait for me to say something. What is a proper response?

GENTLE READER: As there is no sensible follow-up to such a comment, any polite response will do. Miss Manners has heard, “I get that a lot,” but as that appears to shoulder blame, she prefers an enthusiastic, “Thank you so much for letting me know.”


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