Why is "Fräulein" considered offensive, as opposed to "Frau"?

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2

Does Fräulein imply that the woman being addressed is not fully a Frau? Does it imply a lower class status?

Dominique

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 313

1Just an aside on the the second question, since the main one has been answered well. Definitely no associations of lower class whatsoever. Actually the opposite is true to some extent. While most modern connotations of Fräulein are almost identical to those of Miss in English, Fräulein can also be used in contexts where it denotes nobility: "adliges Fräulein". This dates back to the time when Frau was still meant noble lady, Frauenzimmer referred to the non-noble women surrounding one, and the normal word for woman was Weib. – Hans Adler – 2015-08-08T04:46:22.683

Just as relevant for German Fräulein as for English Miss (or Hofstadter's Niss referring to unemployed blacks): "A Person Paper on Purity in Language" by Douglas Hofstadter. The full text should be easy enough to find with Google. – Hans Adler – 2015-08-08T04:52:27.813

Sorry not to answer the question… but this link sheds some light on the surrounding issues! BBC News feature on a French town banning the word for 'Miss'

– Edd Turner – 2012-01-17T12:34:34.643

Answers

29

Fräulein is a diminutive ('Verniedlichungsform') of Frau.

Diminution is considered an intimate act, used a lot with nicknames couples give each other (Häschen, Mäuschen, Bienchen, Bärchen) or for "lovely little beings" like children and pets. So using Fräulein has a touch of intimacy not convenient to many women.

Addressing an unkown woman as Fräulein can be considered as impolite as using Du without having been offered it. The word Fräulein was particularly used to call waitresses and other female assistance in service jobs (not necessarily a bad status, even a female manager of an hotel would be a Fräulein).

Etymology of the word

Until the beginning of the 19th century the word Frau was only used for royal women, a Fräulein was their female child. Within the 19th century the word meaning changed and became used for women having a profession. This usually ended with marriage (in some cases, e.g. female teachers, you had to be unmarried to work). This indicated that a Fräulein was unmarried and "free to go". This part of the name didn't change even when getting very old as long as you didn't marry (and gave up the profession).

The usage of Fräulein is discouraged by the state since 1972 in Germany. In the same decade the feministic movement pointed out that using the diminutive form changes the gender of the word from female to neutrum, this can be considered equally to not acknowlidging the gender of a person but is felt by many as a philosophical question. Since most of the time diminutives are used to address pets and children, the conclusion that Fräulein are not seen as independent and self-determined beings can't be disproved.

Samuel Herzog

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 1 714

2Just as a warning for people reading this: This answer is just wrong. There is nothing intimate about calling someone „Fräulein Müller“. Also, as correct answers have pointed out, this used to be the correct way to address an unmarried woman. It is just not used anymore, for reasons that also have been pointed out. – Carsten S – 2013-09-10T10:14:36.703

4@CarstenSchultz Please give arguments for your comment, help to improve the answer and don't forget the bigger picture (we're talking about at least Germany, Austria and Switzerland and we are talking about the current point of language development) of the language. I know that using Fräulein was common, but it isn't anymore and I tried to lay out the reasons. Your phrasing implies absolute knowledge ('just wrong', 'nothing intimidating') but without argument it seems to be just biased. Thank you. – Samuel Herzog – 2013-09-16T18:16:58.657

2Recently meaning "45 years" here. – user unknown – 2011-06-04T02:54:28.817

8"touch of intimacy"? If this were Wikipedia, I'd slap "original research" on it. Here, I call it speculation. – Jürgen A. Erhard – 2011-06-15T01:35:35.050

4I made a logical chain, is there something not clear for you or an assumption in the chain you'd like to discuss? – Samuel Herzog – 2011-06-15T20:10:00.543

While all that may be true, it never really made sense to me. I'd feel equally weird saying to a twenty-something I don't know (neither name nor marital status, nor even if she's a higher up or a visiting daughter) and is standing amongst a group of men that I need to pass in the hallway: "Verzeihen Sie, Frau." (as opposed to the only thing that would make sense to me and NOT sound half as rude: "Verzeihung, Fräulein.") as an English native-speaker probably would in saying "Excuse me, Ma'am" (instead of "Pardon, Miss", for instance). Argueably in that case the English would be less rude. – BMWurm – 2014-08-07T18:38:08.117

At this moment you may realize, that talking to women respectfully is quite often a bit awkward (in german ;). The honorific for a woman would be "Dame", but isn't used in day-to-day german except for addressing a group ("Meine sehr geehrten Damen (und Herren)"). The "right" way to do it would be: "Verzeihung, werte Dame, dürft' ich vorbei?" - but that's considered old language. So most just drop any honorifics and go with "Lassen Sie mich bitte durch". – Samuel Herzog – 2014-08-08T21:29:34.610

32

A major effort from feminist linguistics is achieving equality of men and women in spoken or written language. All terms that discriminate men and women should be avoided.

Fräulein (the diminutive of Frau) was especially criticized as it did not only discriminate in sex but also has a strong sexist association by the meaning of Fräulein being an unmarried woman. The use of Junggeselle for an unmarried man is used in a very different context and was never used when addressing someone. Therefore the use of Fräulein is strongly discouraged.

References:

Birgit Eickhoff: Gleichstellung von Frauen und Männern in der Sprache. Duden

Susanne Kippenberger: Hallo Fräulein! Der Tagesspiegel

Takkat

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 52 664

8The "diminutive" is the important bit here: it's like calling a grown woman "girl" (or a man "Jungchen"). It implies you're not a full woman if you're no married. That's why it can be taken as offensive. And no, I don't blame "feminist linguistics", I blame waking up and realizing what we actually do say and what those words do and always did imply. – Jürgen A. Erhard – 2011-06-04T14:19:35.437

2When I was a kid there were some old unmarried ladies that would have been embarrased when not being called Fräulein. This has changed a lot since then. – Takkat – 2011-06-04T14:29:33.177

1@adolfgarlic, well, feminists are protesting agains using masculinum forms of proffessions when describing women. Yes, in some countries they want the opposite, yes, in some countries they want both at the same time, no, you don't need to try to look up for deeper sense there. – Danubian Sailor – 2014-01-14T12:56:34.323

So why do they still have two words for every profession? It's incredibly annoying/irritating to read/look at a piece/section of text/writing referring to the masculine/feminine version of a job title/profession – adolf garlic – 2011-06-16T08:52:08.850

15

'Fräulein' was mainly used for unmarried women, and therefore for very young women when in doubt. Not being married was often considered a failure, and even a female professor, 50 years old, could have been called 'Fräulein'.

"This is Fräulein Meier" is nearly equivalent of telling somebody "This is Mr. Müller. He isn't married yet." Independent from his social status as a professional person, independent from age, and from the person you're talking too, man or woman, adult or child, maybe interested in marrying somebody (Mr. Müller) or not.

user unknown

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 16 094

1Yes, of course it is very useful for dating, but it is asymetrical - mens weren't threatened like that, and those Fräuleins where not asked, whether they like to see this information leaked. And 3rd, often forgotten, it implicitly means for all women which were introduced as "Frau Schmitt": 'attention, she is married, belongs to somebody!', so not that helpful for dating for them. – user unknown – 2011-06-04T14:06:48.760

3Oh, so then it would be an instrument against polygamy as well! I was joking. – Cerberus – 2011-06-04T14:08:25.870

Depends on the perspective. For people who strongly prefer polygamy, it would be disclosing of useful information. – user unknown – 2011-06-16T13:52:31.517

Hah, very true. I suppose she should have a chip built in that transmits her dating preferences through wifi. – Cerberus – 2011-06-16T17:54:05.003

12

Yes, it absolutely is offensive. It is also not used at all anymore (except in some situations with small children).

It does not denote class status, it marks the difference between married or unmarried. (It may have denoted class status historically in the sense that a young woman of low class would have gotten no honorific at all, but be called by her first name, but then, an older woman of low class would not have gotten a respectful address, either, so I don't think that this is very relevant here.)

It is offensive and outdated today because:

  • It is a diminutive that does not exist in a male form at all and indicates that an unmarried woman is not a full adult while a married woman and an unmarried man are regardless of age and accomplishments.

  • It implies that it always has to be public information whether a woman is "available" or not.

  • Many women do not marry at all and still have careers and families, so this has felt more and more wrong. (The abolishment also had a lot to do with people calling unmarried mothers with children "Fräulein" in public to draw attention to their amorality.)

  • "Frau" is the equivalent of "Herr" and just means "woman" which makes it much clearer than in other languages that the married title does not have an inherent meaning of marriage, but of being adult, and that this is the analogous address.

Additional remark:

Another diminutive of Frau is Frauchen. "Frauchen" and "Herrchen" is used symmetrically in the sole context of pet owners.

"Der Hund vermisst sein Herrchen." means "The dog misses his (male) owner."

Phira

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 10 286

4To view "Fräulein" as offensive is the hallmark of a fanatic and arguably misguided egalitarianism with little understanding for how things have evolved historically. "Mademoiselle", "signorina" and "señorita" are exactly the same as "Fräulein", and it wouldn't occur to people in those countries to find issue with that expression. (At least I hope!) – Lumi – 2011-06-04T10:30:46.353

7@Lumi: You are of course entitled to think of German women as fanatic and misguided, and of history as a proof of the respectable treatment of unmarried women by chivalrous men, but I don't think that these personal opinions of you are relevant to this question. – Phira – 2011-06-04T11:13:50.203

Do Frauchen and Herrchen imply anything about the age of the owner, or is this another use of the diminutive that indicates closeness, as in Samuel's answer?

– Greg Bacon – 2011-06-04T12:59:10.763

2@Greg Bacon: They don't imply anything about the age of the owner, I would expect an adult owner in a neutral sentence. Note that a diminutive indicates closeness (or condescension) primarily if you use it to address someone, this is very similar to the use of "du". The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that "Herrchen" and "Frauchen" is mostly used if implicitly the viewpoint of the dog is taken as in my example sentence. – Phira – 2011-06-04T13:09:46.523

2It is not absolutely offensive. – Jürgen A. Erhard – 2011-06-04T14:05:48.137

Yes! Hit your dog! He should never again try and think of you as "Herrchen"! – tofro – 2016-06-07T18:51:10.310

7

I wouldn't say it's offensive. It's rather dated and rarely used. That's all.

Dominik

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 298

1What does it mean a word is not offensive “per se“? This is true for so many offensive words that it has no meaning at all! “Esel” isn't offensive, is it? (“Du Esel!”) I can even use “Tee” in an offensive way: “Du bist so fad wie eine Tasse Tee.” You don't have to agree with me about the quality of tea (and I could actually like tea) to read the last sentence as an offence. The important point is that many women feel offended by “Fräulein” which is what it makes offensive in most contexts (unlike “Tee”). – cgnieder – 2012-05-10T19:17:12.500

2

I disagree. Women in a Kindergarten do not feel offended if the children call them "Fräulein". Read the Wikipedia article which quotes a study from 2008. The study says that only 7 percent think "Fräulein" is disgusting, 47 percent use the word themselves.

– Dominik – 2012-05-10T23:07:02.737

@Dominik Wikipedia also mentions that “Fräulein” is considered sexist. And in this “study” - which actually is an Allensbach poll -- only 10% say “Idiot” is disgusting and 71% use the word themselves. So what does that mean now? Is “idiot” not offensive anymore? BTW: the numbers you mention are men and women together. From this poll it is absolutly unclear what women think. – cgnieder – 2012-05-11T19:46:49.833

The question was, whether the word implies a lower class status not what women think about it. If you don't believe me, how about the Duden? Compare the entry for Fräulein with the one for Idiot. Do you see anything offensive in there? It says "dated" all over the place. And so did I.

– Dominik – 2012-05-11T23:25:30.827

@Dominik Let's agree that we disagree. The example with the idiot was only to prove that the poll does not really give any useful information. Just curious: If 90% of the women would think it's offensive would it still not be offensive? BTW: it would be nice if you'd use “@Clemens” when you answer me. Else I don't notified. – cgnieder – 2012-05-12T16:05:18.633

@Clemens, we can agree on that. I think the case that 90 % of the women consider it offensive while 90 % of the men don't, is highly unlikely. – Dominik – 2012-05-13T15:21:41.713

@Dominik I agree that it's unlikely, although I would think the percentage of women should be higher compared to the men. And since it's the women who get addressed with “Fräulein” after all, IMHO they should get to decide, anyway. – cgnieder – 2012-05-13T16:09:08.237

5It depends whom you are addressing. Try to call Alice Schwarzer "Fräulein Schwarzer"! ;) – splattne – 2011-06-04T09:39:03.123

11Miss Schwarzer is fundamentalist, I wouldn't call her at all. – mbx – 2011-06-04T10:29:34.143

2It definitely depends on the way it's said and the context, but outside of friends and family, I'd almost always think that when someone addresses a women with Fräulein it's because he wants to make clear "who's the boss". It doesn't have any place outside verbal assault in modern German language. – perdian – 2011-06-04T11:11:22.790

1@mbx: so, you'd rudely not greet her at all when you'd meet her at a social function? – Jürgen A. Erhard – 2011-06-04T14:04:20.230

3Probably not. Either way she'd notice me as an enemy. – mbx – 2011-06-04T15:16:08.563

Fräulein is dated. You will find it in older books, magazines, articles and it is not offensive per se. Of course it can be used in an unpolite way but whether it is offensive or not depends highly on the context and the person speaking. I don't know the current situation but about 15 years ago the kindergarten teachers were called "Fräulein" and that was not meant to be offensive. – Dominik – 2011-06-04T23:54:49.270

7

The same tendency of avoiding to categorize by marital status is observed in English and French.

In French, the term mademoiselle is mostly used for addressing young children, rarely adults, though I still hear people of the baby-boomer generation use it for younger women. They just want to be polite, the meaning of not being married has somewhat disappeared from the "common" use of the word. The dictionaries mention this term is old-fashioned and better avoided nowadays. I've also seen the term madelle, which might be the equivalent of junggeselle, but the uptake of that neologism hasn't been great.

I've also been told by numerous Anglophones that Mrs is not to be used anymore in generic communications, as it refers to someone married, contrarely to Ms. There was this case where a nun received a letter from a public institution with Mrs on it and she was so upset that she sent an official complaint letter to the institution in question.

So yeah, I think it's just the language evolving with our culture, where marriage and religion is becoming less prominent.

Alama

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 71

3

It should be noted that, while using "Fräulein" for (obviously) grown-up women can be taken as offensive, and is at least awkward (but can still be used in jest, if you know the recipient well enough)...

... addressing a girl that is obviously not an adult as "Frau" is quite awkward too. I don't expect any girl to be insulted (well, one can never know...) but don't be surprised if you garner some rather funny looks :D

Jürgen A. Erhard

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 422

1

"Fräulein" is the German equivalent of "mademoiselle". As stated by others, it used to indicate marital status.

Modern feminist ideology, hugely successful in all Germanic countries, considers distinctions based on marital status politically incorrect. So there's been a cultural campaign to ban the expression from common usage.

As a result, a convenient and polite way to directly accost a young lady has been eliminated, so nowadays people have to resort to clumsy drop-ins like "Hallo!" or "Tschuldigung!", whereas you can still say "junger Mann" to accost a young man, typically as in "Junger Mann, könnten Sie mir mit dem Gepäck hlefen?"

The Wikipedia article on "Fräulein" has some good information.

Lumi

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 681

@JürgenA.Erhard there was the exact equivalent. And it was used as an appellation. It is of course the Junker, for which Grimm defines as the first meaning JUNKER, m. puer, adolescens nobilis! – Ludi – 2017-12-22T17:56:13.870

13You can say "Junge Frau" as well. – swegi – 2011-06-04T08:35:24.883

4"Oh, those evil feminists". I call bullshit. If there had ever(?) been a male equivalent of Fräulein, I'd concede your point. But there isn't and wasn't. – Jürgen A. Erhard – 2011-06-04T14:07:23.440

1@jae I fully agree and this is off-topic, but it might be of historic interest that there has been a male equivalent of mademoiselle in French (which tellingly fell out of use long ago). – Phira – 2011-06-14T19:56:34.440

0

If the woman is young (max 30 years based on appearances) you can call her Fräulein! Depends on who you're calling. Also, women like to be considered younger than they are so as long as you don't use it on older women it shouldn't be a problem. Words aren't usually rude, depends on the people who are interpreting them!

Paul

Posted 2011-06-04T01:04:47.310

Reputation: 41

I would set that age limit to 20 based on appearances. – fifaltra – 2014-01-03T00:35:24.180

but only if she doesn't wear a wedding ring ;) – Danubian Sailor – 2014-01-14T12:53:09.417