Whimsical Post #15: Some thoughts on the use of honorifics

“Conquering kings their titles take” is the initial line of a Christian hymn, seen first in a 1736 breviary published in Paris, and used as its title. However, I must stress that my point is not to discourse on hymns but to about this patricular title in which you can choose your own titles…. honorifics, as I mentioned in the title (oh dear… I tried so much not to repeat the word)

An honorific is usually defined as a word or expression that conveys esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person. With great restraint, I shall restrict myself to the English language since I do not want to bring up words from some other worthy languages, which most of you, my dear unilingual friends, will not understand.

The most common honorifics in modern English are prefixes – usually placed immediately before the name and those which can be used of any adult of the appropriate sex include Mr,  Mrs, Miss, and Ms. Others denote the occupation, for instance Doctor (usually the medical kind unless in Italian…ohh I promised nothing outside English),  Father (for a priest), or Professor.

Some honorifics act as complete replacements for a name, as Sir or Ma’am, or Your Honour. It is these on which I will focus.

As it happens in this benighted country, some of the above become suffixes to a person’s name, usually the given name … it is most annoying, I will even go on to say, quite very annoying. It frequently happens to me with some of my associates, including those I used to consider close friends – and still do, using it. The basic issue is that it creates an artificial difference, which I feel is totally unwarranted, given the links we enjoy (or I think we enjoy – I do apologise for the ambiguity but then there have been a spate of recent incidents in the previous years and I must confess…. anyway).

Also there is the prime issue of the privilege you give someone of addressing you by your given name, unencumbered of honorifics – the disinclination to take up this could be construed as a slight, a marked slight.

I even went along when appeals to forgo the suffix were of no avail, trying to fashion a compromise and suggesting if they were bent on using the word, they should use it in the correct way – as a prefix, so it seemed that I had been ennobled but they continued tagging it after my name and (some still do). I did try to respond by using the necessary honorific for them, but then on reflection, I thought it was more deplorable that I get into their game.

A small digression – as I was re-reading the latest Discworld novel The Unseen Academics  – for the tenth time or so, I chortled over a passage in which Vimes’ men are charged with addressing people “sir” in a way that it rhymes with “cur” – well until it struck me if this could well be applicable in my case.

The underlying point is that the whole issue seems to me be rooted in a sort of hypoc, no, a sort of dece, insinc, falsen, no, no, pretence …(I think that will do) I increasingly see in this country and society – where form is considered enough and not the substance.  But anyway, let it be….. whenever anyone of these insists in using the unnecessary suffix, I am reminded of this scene from the popular sitcom Mind Your Language.

Jeremy Brown (calling out roll): Giovanni?
Giovanni Capello (stands up): Si, professore!
Brown: No “professore”!
Giovanni: No “professore”?
Brown: No, from now on, you are to address me as “Sir”.
Giovanni (bows): “Sir”? Now I understand! You have gone to get “notted”!
Brown (baffled): Come again?
Giovanni: Si, you have gone to get “notted” by the Queen!

And while on the subject, I will inform you – through the medium of another film – when the suffix should be used. This is from Cannonball Run II (1984).  I will not bore you with a surfeit of background but just enough to enable you understand the context. The premise of the film is a coast-to-coast car race in America with the various teams resorting to various dodges and subterfuges in their attempt to win. In the midst, the Arab sheikh’s son (Jamie Farr – Klinger of M*A*S*H* 4077) who is bankrolling the race is kidnapped by the Mafia and as the news spreads, various teams stop to hold a council of war.  Someone notes that the Sheikh is being held in a nearby farmhouse “which is guarded better than Fort Knox”. Then Victor Prinzim (Dom DeLuise) makes a suggestion.

Victor: Then we’ll go the King.
Sheikh’s slave (Doug McClure) (shaking his head): The Sheikh’s father hates him
Victor: He’s not the only King. We have royalty in this country too.

(The scene shifts to an opulent mansion. A man opens the door to a lavish room, saying “He’ll see you guys now”). Behind a large desk at one end, is sitting Frank Sinatra.

Victor (advancing): Mr Sinatra?
Sinatra: You may call me Frank
Victor (Turning to the others with glee and gesturing): I’m to call him Frank
Sinatra: But not exactly now. Maybe later, tomorrow, next or so, I’ll let you know. But not exactly now
Victor (deflated): What I can call you then?
Sinatra: Call me Sir.

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