Time to say au-revoir to Mademoiselle?

Published 2nd March 2012
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As a provider of professional translation services, we at Lingua Translations are dedicated to research into language change and adaptation, and this brings me to a story that has recently been in the news on the subject of language and gender in France.

French feminist groups are currently celebrating a victory in their call for Mademoiselle – the French term used for an unmarried woman – to be removed from all official forms and documents in the future. Previously the term has appeared in all kinds of documents from tax returns and phone bills to insurance claims and online booking forms, but campaigners complained that the term discriminates against women by asking them to reveal their marital status.

The move for the eradication of Mademoiselle began last September in Cesson-Sevigne, a town in Brittany, and the local council has since banned its use in all official documentation. This move has since been mirrored across the country, removing the ideas of married life attached to the term madame, making it carry the same meaning as its male counterpart. As is the case in English, there is only one term used in French to describe males; Monsieur,  and although historically an unmarried male was once a Damoiseau, this term has since gone the way of the dodo, and is no longer used in everyday language. Furthermore, in France, unlike in the UK, there is no neutral form that exists that does not disclose the marital status of the woman, as in the English Ms.

The move has been seen as a positive step towards gender equality in France, with the original term often deemed condescending and even patronising towards women. As with the German Fraulien falling out of use in the 1970s, many feel that it’s high time the French followed suit and stopped using Mademoiselle in the same way.

The counter-argument lies in the idea that the use of Mademoiselle can also be seen as an act of politeness or of gentle flattery, offering allusions of youth and beauty. Waiters will often show Mademoiselle to her table, and worry that they could be at risk of offence due to the implicitly ‘older’ associations with the word Madame.

Lingua Translations understands the importance of picking up on the constant changes in language use, however subtle, and works to adapt its approach to providing professional translation services to its customers.

So what do you think? Would you “miss” (sorry, too easy!) seeing Mademoiselle used in France? Do you think it’s outdated or does it hold a cultural significance that should be held on to, or should an umbrella term such as the English ms be introduced to help solve the problem? And understanding the need to provide professional language services and linguistic accuracy, how do we now approach the word Madame when translating into English?

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