Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Titles and forms of address

Today’s lesson deals with the continued use of archaic, outmoded and grovelling forms of address and tiles. It is time to consider their appropriateness and to rethink their use.

Here are some titles which really aggravate me. There are probably many others.

His/Her Majesty

His Imperial Majesty

His/Her Highness

His Eminence

His Grace

His/Her Worship

His Lordship

Her Ladyship

His/Her Excellency

His Reverence

The Most Reverend

His Holiness

The Honourable

The Right Honourable


Be it noted that there is a certain gender bias in some of these titles. They seem designed to create an aura of grandeur, of authority, inequality, and separateness from others, and may imply both overtly and indirectly that the holders of such titles are more worthy of respect and good fortune than us lesser mortals. However, such titles can also suggest, to put it crudely and unkindly, that the holders are up themselves. My argument is that such titles originated in authoritarian, hierarchical, unequal and stratified societies, and were intended to indicate authority, distinction, royalty, nobility, religious office-holders, and general importance. And to keep people in their places.

Some titles, of course, describe occupations, professions and qualifications, such as Professor, Doctor, Judge, Commissioner, President, Prime Minister, Minister, Speaker, Leader of the Opposition. These do not present any problems. They describe the occupation, office or function, and separate it from the personality.

Titles such as Duce and Fuhrer are indelibly linked to evil and abhorrent people who brought great misery to the world. It is interesting that the Italians no longer use the word Duce (which means Leader). These days, it seems, the word used is capo.

Some people, possibly traditionalists, old fogies or monarchists (the David Flints of the world) are not only happy to retain such titles, but would see them as appropriate and expressing respect. My rejoinder is that there are less grovelling and more accurate ways of expressing respect for a person, or an office or an occupation.

After the French Revolution the general form of address, until the restoration of the monarchy, was Citizen. I quite like this, though the practice seems to have got a bad reputation from the Terror and the Scarlet Pimpernel novels of Baroness Orczy, which sent out a strong message that equality was bad, while aristocrats were inevitably noble, courageous and honest, and could outwit an evil democrat any day of the week.

The Americans seem able to cope with addressing their President as Mr President. This seems an excellent way of giving respect to the office, which does not require or imply any obsequiousness or grovelling. Respect is important, but ought to result from legitimate and democratic authority, responsibility, functions and general courtesy, rather than from the continued adoption of outmoded and ridiculous titles.

Here endeth the rant.

Your humble, devoted and obedient servant,

Her Opiniatedness Persiflage


molly said...

It IS contradictory that, while encouraging the virtue of humility in the rest of us, leaders of the church continue to use Holiness, Eminence, Excellency etc.! The best teaching tool is example.....

Pam said...

These titles don't bother me but it's a bit odd that we call people Doctor etc. No one calls me Teacher (Surname). (Which I'm quite glad about, mind you.)

Meggie said...

It always makes me smile to think a person can become a Doctor, but if s/he gains further qualifications s/he becomes Mister... does a female become Miss? I just realised, I have no idea! Perhaps Madam?
Great rant!