He's `Mr.' bin Laden only in his obituary

August 25, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

About six years ago, this newspaper dropped the use of honorifics, such as Mr. And Mrs., in second references to people we were writing about.

There was much debate about the change and I confess that I was on the losing side. My feeling, like that of most opponents to the change, was simply that dropping the honorifics signaled another step in the decline of The Sun's once great and independent stature. Joining the trend of most newspapers in America by dropping courtesy titles seemed to reflect the accompanying trend of dumbing down and homogenization. I was disappointed.

Now I think I was wrong. I don't miss mister and missus. This occurred to me while I was reading a couple of publications that still do use honorifics and noticed that in second reference, Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad, is Mr. Hussein. Osama bin Laden, possibly the scariest man on earth, is Mr. bin Laden. Mister Bin Laden? Give me a break. Add him to Mr. Kadafi, Mr. Pinochet, Mr. Abu Nidal and so forth.

Actually, if the death of the great terrorist Abu Nidal had been reported on the obituary page rather than in the regular news section, Abu Nidal might have gotten a mister. The newspaper's rules on honorifics have always had exceptions. At The Sun, the honorifics are still used on the obituary page and the opinion pages - although not this opinion page; the two behind it.

Why the difference? Beats me.

I spent some time this week researching when and why The Sun did or didn't use honorifics. Newspapers pride themselves on clear, fair, logical reports and explanations of what's happening in the world, but the rules on honorifics seem always to have been confusing.

Fifty years ago, for example, The Sun and The Sunday Sun used Mr. and Mrs. and Miss in the news section if the person was in a local story, was a member of the clergy, was president of the United States, or was on the obituary page. So, Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state in 1950, didn't get a Mr., but Benjamin Griswold, of the local investment bank Alex. Brown and Sons, did. The mayor of Baltimore got a Mr., but not the mayor of Buffalo, unless, possibly, he was visiting Baltimore.

The Evening Sun - shut down by auslanders in 1995 - used Mr. and Mrs. only in local stories and later dropped them altogether.

Trying to get at some of the history of all this led me to the stylebooks of the newspaper, going back to 1929. The books are splendid reflections of their time. They were tiny in the beginning and seem to have grown bigger and bigger with each revision, just as the newspaper has shrunk. They provide some very humorous reading.

The 1929 book, which is only 16 pages, about 3 inches by 6 inches each, says nothing of honorifics, but recalls a story to go with the warning to be very careful not to omit the word not.

"The word not was omitted by one Baker, the King's printer in England in 1632, in printing the Seventh Commandment. He was fined 4,000 pounds on this account. Remember Baker."

The 1937 stylebook is illustrative of its time in history:

"Capitalize Reds, Whites, Black Shirts, Brown Shirts, Steel Helmets etc., when referring to European politics."

And this admonition about the perils of typographical errors, before Spellcheck:

"Be careful that you DO NOT by the omission or change of a letter in such words as the following, cause them to become coarse or offensive: SHIRT, SHOT, SHIFTING, SHIP, etc."

The 1958 revision of the stylebook is bigger and has a hard cover. It seems to have the first reference to honorifics and the use of Mr. and Mrs. in local stories, for clergymen and the president of the United States. But what about wanton women?

"Similarly Miss and Mrs. should be avoided after the first reference in naming women of obviously low repute. Use such phrases as the Smith girl or the Jones woman."

The Smith girl and the Jones woman might well have been working in an area also formally recognized in the 1958 stylebook: "In referring to that section of East Baltimore Street, use caps and no quotes: The Block."

The 1968 revision of the stylebook brought The Sun into line with The New York Times, using Mr. and Mrs. in all second references, except in the sports section. People convicted of serious crimes would lose their Mr., including in that period, a governor and two county executives. Former Gov. Marvin Mandel was a test, because he kept getting his Mr. back on appeal.

Paul A. Banker, managing editor of The Sun from 1966 to 1982, was the driving force behind the latest revisions and they stood pretty much intact until 1996.

The 1968 revision makes no reference to women of obviously low repute. This was, after all, the '60s, and a woman who would have been considered of low repute for burning her bra in public in the 1950s was the heroine of the 1960s. The big issue was adding Ms. as an honorific.

Honorifics were not the only items that changed over and over. The 1929, 1937 and 1958 books identify the capital of China as Peiping. The 1968 book identifies it as Peking; now it's Beijing.

One piece of advice in the 1937 stylebook has stood the test of time.

"Be especially careful when handling stories referring to The Sunpapers, its directors or anyone connected therewith."

It's not really The Sunpapers anymore, but it's still good advice.

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