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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Courtesy titles not necessary

Judith Martin Universal Uclick

DEAR MISS MANNERS: While terms such as “first lady” should/may be on their way out, I’m just not sure of the proper term for the husband of the president. Is he the “first man”? … “first gentleman”? … “first husband”? (as opposed to second?) … “first spouse”? I’m just not sure.

Also, with so many female high commissioners and ambassadors, is it “madam ambassador” – or is that the wife of a male ambassador? What do you call a female ambassador to her face in wishing to address her? I have a French friend who calls his ambassador “ma cherie” – but I guess that’s because he is Monsieur l’ambassadeur! Or is he?

Maybe we should seek a new term for first lady or the male equivalent. How about “first genderperson”? Or then again, maybe we should just refer to our respective first ladies as what they are: the boss!

GENTLE READER: Or should we perhaps finally get around to recognizing that these people are private citizens and not issue them silly titles? (As the then-Jacqueline Kennedy pointed out when her husband was president, “first lady” sounds like the name of a horse.)

For a country that originally strived to get away from the flowery titles of court society, America has gone cutesy about conferring them where they are not needed. Other countries’ customs of spouse titles (Frau Doktor, Mrs. Colonel) are not an American tradition.

If such a gentleman does not have a title of his own, he should be addressed as Mr. Surname. And if he does have one, Miss Manners dearly hopes that, despite widespread misusage, it will be used correctly. As a hypothetical example, it should be noted that there is only one president of the United States at a time, and while former holders of the office can use lesser titles they may have had, they should not be properly addressed as president.

And about your “madam ambassador”: For Americans, and for the foreign diplomatic corps in Washington, it is only the ambassador herself who has that courtesy title. But some countries give it to ambassadors’ wives.

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