I found out the other day that in the UK, when changing your name by deed poll, you can choose among not four but five titles: Mr, Ms, Miss, Mrs, and Mx. The UK Deed Poll Service provides a helpful explanation of the title “Mx” that deserves to be quoted in its entirety.
In October 2011, we introduced the title of Mx (pronounced Mix) as an option for people who do not identify themselves as either male or female and, therefore, feel a gender specific title such as Mr or Miss is inappropriate and unsuitable for them.
We are unable to guarantee that all record holders (i.e. government departments, companies and organisations that hold your personal records) will recognise your new title but we believe many will and in time all will. Initially, the problem will be record holders’ computer systems not being able to accept Mx as a title but when a significant number of people request record holders show their title as Mx a tipping point will be reached causing record holders to reprogram their systems to accommodate Mx as a title.
Ungrammatical but not illogical: after all, the UK Deed Poll Service’s raison d’être at this point is to cater to people who feel that their names are “inappropriate or unsuitable”–this is just taking it a step further. But that’s by the way. This business of “Mx” got me thinking about titles, and fantasy fiction’s startlingly unimaginative use of them.
So many fantasy novels rely on real-world ranks and titles: Your Majesty, your lordship, sir, my lady, etc … all the way down to “Oi! Peasant!” Why don’t authors invent far-out ranks and titles? In my first novel, Humility Garden, I invented the title “Divinarch” to mean “god-emperor.” I’m still pleased with this. It encapsulates imperial and godly status in one cool word. But it doesn’t actually mean anything different in practice from “emperor.” The world of Salt is a highly centralized theocracy; Kim Jong Un would feel right at home there.
I am calling here for authors to go beyond this. If you’re a serious worldbuilder, your world will differ from ours in many ways. Ranks and titles are a nifty way of flagging these differences.
A couple of intriguing examples come from A Song of Ice and Fire. George R.R. Martin uses “ser” for knights. It’s close enough to the familiar “sir” that we aren’t confused. Its meaning seems to be identical to “sir.” But one fan theory holds that “ser” can refer to a man or a woman, so that Brienne, the cross-dressing warrior maiden, can be a “ser” too. If this theory were correct, “ser” would qualify as a fantasy title that flags a subtly different social reality.
Martin also uses an olde-timey spelling of master, “maester,” to denote his caste of priest/doctor/scientists. Again, this is a pitch-perfect use of a fantasy title to signpost a divergence from the reality we know.
The usual practice is for titles to be literal job descriptors, e.g. “The Watcher of the Seals, the Flame of Tar Valon, the Amyrlin Seat,” who is addressed as “Mother,” and addresses her subordinates as “Daughter.”(1) This can be helpful to readers trying to remember a multitude of characters, but it can also be annoying and boring.
Why not try something more on the lines of the Japanese system?
Everyone knows that the Japanese call each other “-san.” Students of the Japanese language will also know that san is used to address equals, while sama is for superiors, chan is for little girls or female juniors, and kun is for little boys or male juniors. This already gives us the framework of a social reality subtly different from our own. But that’s only the beginning! When emailing a san in a formal context, you address them as dono. Sama is really only used for the Imperial Family, the Buddha, and your customers. And when addressing a superior within your own organization, you usually call them by their job title, e.g. Tanaka-kaichou (Chairman Tanaka). Then there’s the wonderful world of animals! Alive (“Don’t go too near Kuma-san [Mr. Bear]”) or dead (“Would you like some buta-chan [a cute little pork chop]?”). These are playful ways of using titles to frame the natural world. The honorific o- ought also to be mentioned here. At my daughter’s nursery school, everything from nappies to plates gets o- attached to it. This custom is mercifully not so prevalent in the adult world.
Linguistic tics are the visible eighth of the iceberg. They’re attached to a submerged colossus of preconceptions and beliefs. But they’re really all you need to suggest the existence of that colossus.
Just to be clear, I’m not calling for more smeerps. Fantasy novels already have a tendency to bog down in invented words that didn’t need to exist. Ironically, at the same time there’s a dearth of authors using the words we have in really inventive ways(2).
Distancing, that crucial tool in the genre writer’s box of tricks, is achieved most effectively by using unfamiliar words, or familiar words in new ways. A subtle jolt to the reader’s expectations can achieve more than pages of exposition. As Heinlein said, “The door irised.” Or:
He abandoned his island on the second day of the storm. Its substrate weakened by the tossing waves, it was slowly sinking.
Yow! Clearly we’re not on planet Earth anymore. Now let’s kick it up a notch:
He watched himself drown from the cocktail lounge of his ship, moored in geostationary orbit above the storm. Autonomous sensor flocks delivered a close-up of his own face, red and desperate. “Screw you!” the him howled, hanging onto a giant fern. “Call yourself an imagineer?”
I pinched that from Disney, but you take the point. Repurposing familiar titles in genre settings is fun! Just think of Gene Wolfe. Coming up with completely new ones demands more work from reader and writer alike, but is well worth it when done right (think of Gene Wolfe again).
Once more into the breach, partisanos! There’s more to fantasy than kings and queens and improbably enlightened peasants with progressive social values. Write me something about imagineers, dirtmunchers, cloudwrights, untouchables, extrastellar rag-and-bone men, and demonkeepers. Maybe even call some of them “Mx.”
1. If you don’t know what series this example comes from, just read this. Actually, read it even if you do know. But don’t read it at your desk at work, or anywhere else you’re likely to get busted for laughing out loud.
2. Not to mention the misuse of words we already have. What’s the malapropism that most annoys you? Mine has to be “free reign” for “free rein.”
Hi Felicity – –
I think you’ve hit on an astute point. Gender address is a politically-charged element in any culture. Some authors do address new forms of address. Andre Norton, I believe, used to employ “gentlehome” in some of her works. But a lot of writers avoid gender in their world building construction. And it really is an important consideration. Good article.