Q: For the past few years, the media has referred to the president as “Mr. Obama.” This strikes me as wrong and even disrespectful. Even Phil McGraw is “Dr. Phil,” not “Mr. McGraw.” What’s your opinion?
A: First of all, this mistering of a president is nothing new.
Here’s an example from an April 18, 1861, article in the New York Times from New Orleans: “Mr. LINCOLN’s war proclamation was received with no astonishment.”
There’s nothing wrong or disrespectful about this usage, but it’s by no means universal.
The media—that is, the world of mass communications—is a big place that includes TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, news websites, and the blogosphere.
The news organizations populating this world follow many different style guides, but they generally refer to the occupant of the Oval Office as “President So-and-So” when first mentioned.
They differ, however, over how to refer to the president on second or third or whatever reference.
The Associated Press, for example, uses only his last name while the New York Times mixes things up and uses “the president,” “Mr. So-and-So,” or “President So-and-So.”
As for the courtesy title “mister,” it began life in the 1500s as a variant of “master,” a much older term that first showed up in the early days of Old English, when it was written as mægster.
The ultimate source of “mister” and “master,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is magister, Latin for master, chief, teacher, and a few other things.
When “master” first showed up in English in the writings of King Alfred, the ninth-century ruler of the West Saxons and Anglo-Saxons, it meant a man who had authority over others.
Over the years, it has taken on many other meanings, including an employer (early Old English), a teacher (early Old English), a courtesy title (Old English), a skilled workman (circa 1300), a manager of a shop (c. 1400), a male head of a household (1536), a captain of a merchant vessel (mid-1900s), and so on.
The abbreviated title “Mr.” showed up in the 1400s, according to OED citations, initially a shortened form of “Master” and later short for “Mister.”
“Until the latter half of the 17th cent.,” the OED says, “the title was often written in the full form master, but there is reason for believing that from the 16th cent. it was, at least in rapid or careless speech, treated proclitically, with consequent alteration of the vowel of the first syllable.”
In other words, as “master” began being treated proclitically (that is, as a prefix-like term connected to a name following it), this sense of the word evolved into “mister.”
“Eventually the word came to have the weakened pronunciation whenever it was used as a prefixed title,” the OED adds, “and it became customary always to employ the abbreviated spelling for this use, and only for this.”
As for Dr. Phil, enough said.
Check out our books about the English language