The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Forms of Address

Category: Short stories

It is true that one addresses an audience of English people as ‘Ladies and gentlemen’’, but the singular of these vocatives is another matter. A foreigner would do best to stick to “Madam’’ and “Sir’’; this is the only formally correct way to address strangers, though it is notat all commonly used by the English themselves. Also, in the course of conversation, if one does not want to go on repeating “Mr Jones’’, “Mrs Jones’, etc., one can call the person to whom one is speaking “Sir’’ or “Madam ’’.

But if you mix freely with the English or read the latest English publications you will find a maddening number of variations on the use of “Sir’’ or “Madame’’ among the English themselves. The English often do not know: what one is to call after a stranger who has, for example, dropped a glove while getting out of a train? They have no generally accepted forms like “Monsieur’’ and “Madame’’ in French, and most people in such circumstances call out “I say!’’ or even “Hi!’’ In less urgent cases one usually says “Excuse me…’’ without a vocative word. Waiters and waitresses, shop-assistants and servants of both sexessay “Sir’’ or“Madame’’ to the people whom they are serving. You call “Waiter!’’, “Waitress!’’ or “Porter!’’ if you want service; you may call a female shop-asistant “Miss’’ (though often she does not like it), and what you call a male shop-assistant is impossible to say. Women, apart from the exceptions just mentioned, hardly ever call a man “Sir’’, unless he is very much their superior at work. Schoolgirls and schoolboys call their master “Sir’’ but their mistress “Miss’’, not “Madam’’.

Nearly all manual workers would think it rather degrading to themselves if they addressed either a superior or a stranger as “Sir’’; in offices, on the other hand, some use “Sir’’ to their superiors, some donot. Almost any worker will feel insulted if he is addressed by a superior as“Jones’’ instead of “Mr Jones’’, so “Mr Jones’’ he always is. Yet if men are on any terms of friendly acquaintance, they will use Christian name or surname only. Women call each other “Mrs Jones’’, “Miss Jones’, or ““Mary’’, but almost never “Jones’’. Girls in school are called by their Christian names, but boys usually by their surnames.

The habit of using Christian names alone has spread enormously since the war. Even high-ranking civil servants or army officers will now use Christian names after a very brief acquaintance, and among the young of all classes the habit is so universal that sometimes they do not even know each other’s surnames when they are quite well acquainted. The English have come a long way from the world of earlier English novels, where even husband and wife would address each other, as in Jane Austen’s ***Pride and Prejudice’, as“Mr Bannett’’ and “Mrs Bennett’’! The new habit has spread not only in social life but also at work, in offices and factories alike. There has been a natural reaction against it by some people, even among the young, who feel that Christian names should be postponed until acquairtance is rather more intimate. Another common way of referring to people (but not of addressing them) is to use Christian name and surname together.

There are some “folk’’ ways of address which the traveller will hear from people of less education: “Mister’’ to a man (especially from children), “Lady’’ to a woman, “Guv’nor’’ (Governor) to a mam who is considered a superior, and “Mate’’ among both men and woman to those whom they consider their equals. Since the war there has also been a pleasant habit of addressing a stranger, whether man or woman, as “Dear’’, and in the north of England “Love’’ is an old-established word.

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