The “governor” of Svalbard will become the “master” of Svalbard as of next July 1 to fulfill a Norwegian law that all official titles be gender-neutral by next year – but in becoming what some see as a slave to the politically correct renaming craze did the government just submit to a different form of servitude?
The title of “Sysselmannen” that has stood since the Svalbard Treaty took effect nearly a century ago will change to “Sysselmester” next summer, according to Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security, which has administrative oversight of the archipelago and appoints the person to the office that actually carries out those duties (and others such as policing) in Svalbard.
Potential new titles representing both the person and office have been widely debated – and often mocked – since the government requested suggestions months ago, with “Svalbard Syssel” emerging as an official recommendation from the Language Council of Norway last month.
But Svalbard. Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said she “wasn’t enthusiastic” about that choice and Justice Minister Monica Mæland told Svalbardposten on Friday that “Sysselmeister” is an all-around fitting choice the Language Council also supports.
“I think ‘sysselmester’ is a nice title that suits modern Svalbard,” she told the newspaper. “It preserves the historical designation of the job, which is known and incorporated. ‘Mester’ shows that the position also has the task of police chief.”
But there’s a whole bunch of linguistic “howevers” to consider regarding the new title.
First, for the sake of establishing a foundation for some of the debate now occurring about the new title, the foremost direct translation of “mester” in English is “master,” but a secondary meaning translating to “chief” is also highly used in many official titles in Norway, such as “politimester.”
Next, for the sake of journalistic integrity at the expenses of some of the “fun,” the official title of the person/position in English won’t be either of the above, according to Askholt. It will remain “The Governor of Svalbard,” which is sensible enough, since there’s no gender bias there.
Also, she said, it’s not really possible to do a perfect literal English translation of “Sysselmester,” although for practical purposes there is a definitive definition in this case (read on a bit more to reveal that spoiler).
As for the most common uses of “mester,” either presents arguments the new title is/isn’t an improvement over the supposed incorrectness of the old one.
In terms of “master,” during these times where politically correct renaming is all the rage (OK, hardly “all” in the anger sense), the word is massively on the taboo list as everything from “master bedroom” to “master sommelier” to “master/slave” programming code are being asked to give into submission. And, yes, official titles involving the military and others are on the list.
Furthermore, “master” also happens to be a masculine title and thus a Norwegian no-no in theory. It’s a formal/archaic reference to males under 18 (as in “I’m afraid Master Dick (Grayson) has gone traveling. He took the car”).
But perhaps all that is moot because Askholt said the meaning of the phrase applied to her job is same as for police, as in “chief.” However, that also is a taboo word among many these days who say it’s insensitive to Native Americans and other Indigenous people.
Mæland did not immediately respond to inquires about the potential political incorrectness of the Svalbard leader’s new title.
She told Svalbardposten the title change will not cost extra money – meaning any costs have to covered in the ministry’s current budget – but the process will be time-consuming since, among other things, all laws and regulations referring to the Sysselmannen must be updated. Norway’s government set an original target date of Jan. 1 for the gender-neutral requirement in Svalbard and elsewhere.