Collective groans greeted the New York subway system’s decision to stop referring to passengers as “ladies and gentlemen.” In olden days, which now date to last month, subway conductors would include these words in public announcements. For example: “Ladies and gentlemen, please watch your personal belongings.”
Fox News responded predictably, with both pained umbrage and inaccuracy. It took a break from undermining the democracy to complain, in one commentator’s words, that muggers and perverts manhandling women are no longer the biggest threat facing the subway system. It is “conductors using the words ‘ladies and gentlemen.’”
Actually, there are bigger threats than even muggers — terrorists, for one. And though littering on the platform isn’t more evil than molesting female passengers, it is still unacceptable. Just a little reality, for the interested.
However, the notion that dropping “ladies and gentlemen” is an outgrowth of political correctness is not off base. And I’ll concede the view at Fox News that it is not necessary.
The reasoning goes that some riders, such as transgender individuals, identify with a gender other than the one they were born with. These people deserve respect and accommodation. But they still generally identify with a gender. (I know I’m embracing the “gender binary” classification.)
So I see no reason they should feel excluded in an appeal to ladies and gentlemen. Others could just shrug it off, knowing that they face far more serious challenges than this one.
In any case, “ladies and gentlemen” is an aspirational address. It is offered in the hope that the less mannerly males and females riding the trains would elevate their behavior. Otherwise, conductors could use the New Jersey-inspired “youse guys,” which actually applies to all genders — something like, but less genteel than, the Southern “y’all.”
For instance: “Listen up, youse guys, and let the damn passengers off the train before you shove your way in.”
I clearly like the old-fashioned formality of “ladies and gentlemen.” It sounds especially right this time of year, when “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” one of the loveliest Christmas carols, plays in elevators, in department stores and on subway platforms, courtesy of the buskers.
Composed a good five centuries ago, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” differs from most modern carols in the music’s ancient sound. It was written in the mixolydian mode, a musical scale very rarely used these days. (The mixolydian mode is what gives the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood” its antique quality. Interestingly, it is also employed in “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.)
Years hence, I may see the error of my ways in defending “ladies and gentlemen.” But for now, I stand pat.
Not that anyone is asking me. The new subway guidelines call for replacing “ladies and gentlemen” with the utilitarian terms “passengers” and “riders.”
Passengers would also include the nonhumans frequently found taking a ride. Last summer, there was a duck on a leash. And someone videoed a raccoon taking up a seat, eating calmly out of a bowl.
And there’s the occasional rat. In November, a rat was found running back and forth in a subway car. Frightened humans jumped on the seats, screeching. However, none of them seemed as unhappy as the rat.
I see a middle road. Instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or the impersonal “riders,” let’s refer to the passengers as “gentlefolk.” The word “folk” makes no gender distinctions. It just applies to well-behaved human beings.
Someone would find fault with it, perhaps denouncing the term as a class distinction. The motto of our age seems to be, “Let nothing you dismay.” Would more of us find comfort and joy in being more selective of what bothers us.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at email@example.com.