Señora vs Señorita: Who Is She?
Señora vs señorita—that is the question, when referring to women in Spanish.
Really, this is one of the trickiest issues in the language, as it touches on delicate cultural assumptions. Trust me, you don’t want to mess this one up.
Today, we’ll learn why the señora vs señorita debate is so important in Spanish-speaking countries, the difference between the terms, and why people might get offended if you use them in the wrong way.
We’ll also discover other “courtesy titles” that exist in Spanish and their abbreviations, as well as how to adapt your verb conjugation for both formal and informal situations.
Señora vs Señorita: a Heated Debate in Spanish
If you’ve ever lived in a Spanish-speaking country or visited one as a tourist, chances are that you’ve heard someone calling a woman señora or señorita. Perhaps you’ve even been called one of these terms.
What’s behind them? In other words, what makes a woman a señora or señorita? Age? Social position? Marital status?
The answer is not as straightforward as one would like; thus, the señora vs señorita debate is a heated one in Spanish-speaking countries. So much, that you can insult a woman if you don’t get it right. Hence the importance of understanding what all this is about.
Courtesy Titles in Spanish
Courtesy titles are terms that do “not have legal significance but rather are used through custom or courtesy, particularly, in the context of nobility.” This definition refers mostly to titles such as Lord, Duke, or Marquis. These titles are still in use in Europe and other countries around the world.
However, sometimes the term “courtesy title” is used to encompass a broader concept to show respect, esteem, or courtesy when referring to a person. When used like this, courtesy titles are also known as honorific. For example:
- Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Dr. in English
- Señor, señora, or señorita in Spanish
Why Do People Use This Kind of Language?
The Spanish-speaking world is full of formalities and underlying levels of complex relationships. The way we write and speak is definitely more formal than the way people write and speak in the United States, and that has a lot to do with the history of our countries.
People use courtesy titles due to custom and tradition, but also because even in the 21st century people consider society to be comprised of classes that need to be differentiated.
Take, for example, the Quinceañera celebration that takes place in many countries in Latin America. It used to mean that a girl had become a señorita, entered society, and was ready to entertain marriage proposals. At the age of 15!
The Quinceañera tradition stayed, but the background and meaning of the celebration has changed as societies have evolved. Nowadays, Mexican parents who throw a Quinceañera party for their daughter are not expecting her to get married anytime soon.
The señora vs señorita debate is a perfect example of this formal language still widely used in Latin America. If you were to include Spain in this discussion, that formality just grows in importance.
Learning a language is not only an exercise in grammar acquisition but also a deep exploration of a different culture. Learning when to use señora or señorita is more about understanding how the Spanish-speaking culture works, than about which word goes where.
Other Courtesy Titles in Spanish
Notwithstanding the importance of the Señora vs Señorita debate, there are other courtesy titles in Spanish that you should also learn. Some of the most common ones are
Señor – Mr., Sir
Used to refer to an adult man.
Gracias por su compra, señor.
Thank you for your purchase, sir.
The origins of Don come from ancient Rome and the Latin word for owner or sir: “Dominus.” These days, you can say Don to an adult man, usually of advanced age as a sign of respect.
Don José ha comprado la casa de mamá.
Don José has bought Mom’s house.
Caballero – Gentleman
Also reserved for adult men, this one is more formal and implies a high social position.
El caballero ya se va.
The gentleman was leaving.
Dama – Lady
The equivalent of caballero for women.
Las damas primero.
Licenciado, Doctor – Professions
In certain Latin American countries, it’s common to call someone by their professional degree. Particularly, Licenciado is used to refer to lawyers and Doctor for medical doctors or PhDs.
El licenciado no se encuentra en este momento.
The attorney isn’t here at the moment.
Hola, doctor, ¿cómo estás?
Hello, doctor! How are you doing?
Señora vs Señorita
Now, let’s get into the tricky Señora vs Señorita issue. It seems like an easy thing to solve, but for cultural reasons you’ll see that it’s not that simple.
What’s the Difference?
In this señora vs señorita debate, the first thing you need to ask is: what’s the difference between one term and the other?
According to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, señora is used to refer to married or widowed women, while señorita is reserved for single women.
Another way to understand the señora vs señorita debate is to simply translate the terms into English:
Señora – Mrs., Madam, ma’am
Señorita – Miss, young lady
However, if it were so easy, we wouldn’t call it a debate and a tricky issue, right?
When is it an Insult to Use Either Term?
It’s about age mostly, but not always. For example, if you call a twenty-something girl señora, she might get offended, as that term implies a certain age. It’s as if you’re saying she’s old.
However, that same twenty-something girl can get offended if you call her señorita and she’s already a married woman.
That’s the tricky part.
Even the RAE is not sure about it. On its Twitter feed, it says that in the señora vs señorita issue, different factors are taken into consideration, including age and marital status.
To make matters worse, nowadays señorita can be considered a discriminatory word. It can even be considered an expression of machismo. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t go that far, as the word is widely used and usually accepted as a compliment in Latin America.
Actually, if you want to make a grown up lady smile, call her señorita even if you know that she’s over forty and married with kids.
What About Doña?
Doña, like Don, comes from the Latin “Dominus” and signals an important social position. Its use is less extended than señora, but sometimes it can be used in the same situations.
Basically, you call Doña an important lady, an adult woman who is a boss, an owner, or a woman with power. It’s used in the same circumstances as Don for men.
Just as in English you have abbreviations for these terms, they also exist in Spanish. Let’s see some of the main ones:
Señora – Sra.
Señorita – Srta.
Doña – D.ª
Don – D.
Señor – Sr.
Licenciado – Lic.
Doctor – Dr.
Ingeniero – Ing. (engineer)
To end this señora vs señorita debate, it’s important to remember that you use these terms when speaking in formal language.
If you call a woman either señora or señorita, it is because you’re treating her with the formal “you” in Spanish—usted—and all the accompanying conjugations should reflect that. If you call a woman by her name, then you would be using the informal word for the second person: tú, and the conjugations of your verbs should adapt accordingly.
Practice Your Formal Language Today
The señora vs señorita debate is a tricky issue for many Spanish students, but I think that now you’re better prepared for that moment of truth when you meet a woman for the first time and need to choose one of the two terms in a fraction of a second. When in doubt, señorita is the safer bet!
Sign up for a free trial class with one of our certified Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala, and practice your formal language in Spanish today!
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