Not long ago a deputy in the European Parliament had a brilliant idea: abolish all gender-specific appeals to colleagues of the female sex - "Miss", "Madame", and "Mademoiselle", also "Fraulein", "Señora" and so on - and replace them with the unisex "Deputy So-and-So".
Otherwise, how confusing it all is: one female deputy wants to be called "Mademoiselle" until retirement, another responds only to "Madame", while a third can't stand either form of address because in Parliament we have neither men, nor women, only colleagues.
To round out the picture the gender-sensitive deputy with the bright idea also proposed outlawing all words indirectly related to the male sex - words like "policemen", "sportsmen", "statesmen" - and replacing them with gender-neutral alternatives such as "police officer", "athlete" and "political leader". This would rule out any possible hint of sex discrimination in the European Parliament.
Russia has conducted a number of similar experiments of its own, and rather than limit these to a single parliament, they have been extended to the entire country. So for anyone who's interested, we can share our unique experience.
In tsarist Russia, everything was simple and clear: women of a certain age were called sudarynya, young ladies baryshnya. But after the socialist revolution of 1917, such forms of address were considered too bourgeois - and subjected to wholesale eradication. The Bolsheviks instituted their own universal appellation: tovarishch ("comrade"). This was very convenient and worked in almost any situation: "comrade student", "comrade salesperson", "comrade boss" and so on. In one popular movie of the time, the head of a summer camp for Young Pioneers addresses his young underlings as "comrade children!" True, his character was a satire.
In 1991, Russia had another revolution. Fortunately, this one was bloodless, but no less fundamental: it was called Perestroika. This time the first to suffer were the "comrades" - both in the literal (members of the Communist Party) and the figurative sense. The word "comrade" now became little short of a form of abuse. Russians no longer wanted to be politically correct comrades. They wanted to be women, men, "new Russians", and God knows what else. Incidentally, the term "new Russians" was coined by "Kommersant", the respected business daily founded on the first wave of perestroika. "Kommersant" tried to instill in Russian citizens, now in a quandary as to what to call themselves, a fondness for the word gospodin (the Russian equivalent for, depending on the context, "gentleman", "Sir" or "Mister"). Sometimes this looked a fairly absurd. For instance, in crime reports in the papers: "Mr. Ivanov hacked his drinking companion Mr. Petrov to death with an axe." On the other hand, the word gospodin became entirely natural among Russian bankers, financiers and top managers - members of the new business class that grew up in the wake o perestroika. But this word did not take among most other Russians. For instance, the President of Russia would never address his fellow Russians at the start of a state-of-the-nation address as "ladies and gentlemen". Only as "Respected citizens of Russia." Boris Yeltsin preferred: "Dear Russians".
So while we seem to have gotten rid of "comrades", we have yet to become "ladies and gentlemen". On the street, the situation is even worse. If you need to ask a stranger a question, you immediately have the problem of what to call them. Of course, one can always resort to impersonal forms, such as: "Excuse me, could you please tell me..." But if there are several people, and you need to get the attention of one of them, it all becomes incredibly complicated. If not unpleasant. Because in this case, in the Russian language today, your only choice is to address that person as either muzhchina ("man") or zhenshchina ("woman"). As forms of address these two reasonably neutral words sound frankly horrendous, and yet what else can you do? There's also the word devushka ("girl"), which when calling out to someone sounds to Russians slightly less vulgar. That is why devushka is often used with respect to waitresses and sales assistants, even when those waitresses and sales assistants are practically retirement-age.
The pre-Revolutionary sudarynya and baryshnya sound terribly old-fashioned today. Yet we haven't managed to come up with anything better - evidently, we've been too busy with other things. We'll just have to wait until the transitional perestroika period ends.
As for those who object to abolishing "Madame" and "Mademoiselle" in the European Parliament, they'll just have to hope that the opinion of one deputy is insufficient in such cases. It takes at least a revolution.
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