Is it time the French finally ditched the word 'mademoiselle'?

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Oliver Gee - [email protected]
Is it time the French finally ditched the word 'mademoiselle'?
Photo: MadameouMadame

Five years ago France tried to get rid of the word "mademoiselle" on the grounds of equality, but it still lingers on and on International Women's Day, feminists tell The Local it's time for it to go. But it's a delicate subject.


You may not have known it, but the French word mademoiselle, that we are all taught at school to mean "miss", is rather offensive to some. 
Feminist groups hate it, politicians have tried to eradicate it from public documents, and many women wince when they hear it.
But still, the word remains popular and well used in France - so what's the problem?
It's mainly about equality - why should there be a word to separate married and unmarried women when there isn't the same for men?
And it's also about privacy - why should women have to reveal their marital status if they don't want to?
Adding insult to injury, the word mademoiselle actually comes from the term 'oiselle', which can also mean 'virgin'. 
And to rub extra salt in the wound, there actually was a male equivalent for the word mademoiselle - mondamoiseau - but it faded into obscurity several decades ago, perhaps even longer ago.
With this in mind, Francois Fillon, yeah that guy who is currently running for president, banned it from official documents back in 2012 when he was prime minister. 
He issued instructions for the word to be removed from all official forms, meaning all women were to be referred to as "madame".
Asking for a woman's "maiden name" (or "nom de jeune fille" in French) or "married name" was also banished.
His move came after a campaign spearheaded by feminist group Osez Le Feminisme. 
Celine Piques, a spokeswoman for the group, told The Local on International Women's Day that there has been progress since the 2012 law change, but that "it could be better". 
"Most of the state departments have taken the new law into account, but it's not been so well applied with corporations who maybe aren't so aware of the laws," she tells The Local. 
She adds that a lot of big companies will still have the "mademoiselle" option in their online application forms, something the group will often bring to their attention.  
"You shouldn't have to tell your boss about your married life, your private life, especially when there is a discrepancy that men don't have to do it," she said. 
"I prefer that people call me madame, regardless of my marital status, but I am a feminist activist. If it offends others too, my advice is to politely explain why you're offended."
And to be fair, the public has been slow to catch on.
Ask any French woman about the word and you're bound to get an opinion on it. Some even say they enjoy the thrill of coming across as young enough to be considered a mademoiselle.
Beatrice, a 35 year-old Parisian woman, says she gets called both "madame" and "mademoiselle".
"When people call me madame I feel old, and when they say mademoiselle, I feel 20 again," she says. "Although when people see me with my kids, they always use madame.
"I don't see why it should be ditched. It might have been for single ladies originally but for me it just means younger women."
But Osez Le Feminisme thinks differently.
"Contrary to popular belief, it is not flattering to tell a woman she's available, particularly in a professional context," their website says.
Their members can still be found wearing badges and logos with the word mademoiselle crossed out like in a no-smoking sign. 
Will 'mademoiselle' die out?
Piques hopes that she hopes the word vanishes from popular usage.
"Language is something that's free to evolve, but I do hope the word eventually disappears. I think it would be easier to just say Madame and Monsieur, but we will see how the French language will evolve."
French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis agrees that the topic is "a delicate question" and ditching it won't always work.
"We still use the word mademoiselle a lot when we speak... Calling a twelve year old girl "madame" would just sound silly in France. I don't think anybody would do that," she tells The Local. 
Mademoiselle also remains fashionable, not least in the fashion industry with boutique clothing stores using the word to appeal to young women.
So what should we be saying? According to the feminists, you should be using the word madame - end of story. 
And there might be a few men, not least French language learners who wold be happy for there to be just one option.
"Madame or mademoiselle? It's a real pain," one man tells Osez Le Feminisme's campaign video. "I never know what to say. Out in the street or at work, we have to guess if the woman is young or not, if she's married, if she might have kids. We can't get our heads around it.
"I just call everyone madame. It's easier and more respectful."
Perhaps what the French need to do is come up with an alternative like "Ms" in English which is neither Mrs nor Miss and allows a woman to keep her marital status secret.
However that only really works for the forms. Perhaps in speech they could do away with both mademoiselle and madame but then the French like their formalities.
According to Chevalier-Karfis, you basically need to decide on a case-by-case basis. 
"The question you need to ask yourself is: could this woman be married ? If so, you go for madame," she says. 
"I don't know. Most of the time I wonder if I used the right word myself," she says. 
In a blog post on the topic, she says the word is rife with danger, as using it can give off a whole host of meanings.
"If you are a man, and say 'bonjour mademoiselle' to a 45-year-old, you could sound flirtatious," she writes. 
"However if you said 'bonjour madame' and the 45-year-old woman answered with a big smile and said: 'non, mademoiselle'... well, then, she is flirting with you!"
So should you use it or not?
In writing, definitely not. In spoken language - probably not. But in case that you do want to use it (and only do so at your own peril), then Chevalier-Karfis has one last piece of advice:
"The middle e is silent, so if you're going to say it, it's 'mad mwa zel'," she says. 
The debate about whether the whole word should be silent will likely rumble on for years to come.



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