How do you let guests know that you don't expect them to get dressed up, exactly, but sort of? How do you indicate that they don't need to eat before the party because you're not quite serving a full dinner, but sort of?
What is the polite word to describe people who are sort of young, but not really? Or those who are sort of old, but not really?
What do you call people who are sort of dating, but not exactly dating, or sort of married, but not actually married, or not really the parent of a particular child, but sort of acting in that capacity?
Miss Manners thinks it sort of unreasonable of a society with that much trouble making up its mind to demand precise terms to describe such in-between states. Life was easier when the choice was between formal and informal, dinner and cocktails, youth and old age, courtship and friendship, marriage and great-and-good-friendship, and parents and houseguests.
Having more choices was supposed to make it more exciting, but what time does anyone have for excitement when so much is spent just figuring out what is meant?
"Formal" and "informal" meant something, although the meaning slid from "white tie" and "black tie," respectively, to "black tie" and "business dress." Nobody has a clue to what is meant by the current slew of oxymorons -- "elegant casual," "creative black tie" -- including the people who keep making them up.
Age designations have become so befuddled by bogus claims -- such as 10-year-olds claiming to be old enough to commit adult sins and 70-year-olds claiming to be middle-aged -- that age has become voluntary. Perhaps we should tell the You're Only as Old as You Feel crowd that they can't collect Social Security until they feel old enough, and the young at heart need not apply.
Some parental terms have gotten baldly explicit -- biological parent, sperm donor, surrogate mother -- while others have been loosely and pathetically conferred on those just passing through the household.
As far as Miss Manners is concerned, courting couples can call themselves anything they like as long as it is decent. However, by the time they buy a house together and register their children at school, society needs a term for them. One had not existed previously, because people in that situation denied it.
For many weary years, she conducted an earnest search.
She had rules, and she had the help of legions of imaginative Gentle Readers, most of whom ignored her rules. The term should not be cutely or baldly descriptive of the emotions presumably involved in the situation, she declared; it should be easy to spell and pronounce, and it should not create confusion by pre-empting a term in use for non-romantic relationships.
Society now seems to have settled on "companion" and "partner." These violate Miss Manners' third rule, instituted to protect the reputations of those who may innocently use these terms to refer to their pets or their business associates.
But if it means she never again has to hear the terms Significant Other and POSSLQ, she will consider herself lucky.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: If you are answering the telephone in the home of Patty and Pete Magpie, is it true that it is NOT correct to say "Mr. Magpie's residence"?
And it IS correct to say "Mrs. Magpie's residence? I read this idea in a book written in 1960.
GENTLE READER: That is because it was the assumption in 1960, that Mr. Magpie was off at work, and Mrs. Magpie was in charge of the household.
Nowadays, we assume that Mrs. Magpie is off at work and still charged with running the household. Therefore, the form "Mrs. Magpie's residence" is still current among traditionalists, unless Mr. Magpie will make such a fuss as to not make it worth Mrs. Magpie's while. ("Mr. Magpie" was never correct, and now it would be foolhardy as well.)
Judging from the choices of more advanced folk, they would prefer you to say, "You've reached Patty and Pete. They can't take your call right now, but if you leave a message they'll get back to you just as soon as they can. Have a good one."