A word about introductions…or do I mean modes of speech?


This is a thing, or a number of things, which annoys me very much.  And this has very much to do with hierarchy and protocol and all that stuff which contemporary authors often don’t know about, because we live in this ostensibly equality driven society and believe erroneously that these things don’t matter.

Well, maybe so.  Or not.  (I’m not certain that respect should ever be allowed to fall out of fashion.)

But the point is that just about any society previous to the one we’re living in was more formal than ours. 

So, for example, here in the UK, males did not, until about five minutes ago, refer to our friends and acquaintances in public by anything other than their surnames.

I know it sounds mad to say so.  (Surely we call them things like Bingo and Tuppy and Stinker…well, yes, obviously…)

But think about movies made during WW2.  The American movies of the period will have had a cast of characters with names like Bob, Phil, Tom, etc. 

The British films (yes, often starring John Mills) will have had a cast of characters known by the surnames, Smith, Barker, Tuffnell, Williams…And that’s how it was.  That’s how they’d been referred to when they were in school, at university, at their bank, at their club…

I’m still known to many people only by my surname.  Boys in private or public schools still often only use their surnames.  It’s not that we’re not friendly…(well, probably we’re not very), but that’s absolutely how it was until at least after WW2…

This is even more true when one is speaking of those with a title. 

They’re always known by their title, unless one is a close family friend or indeed a close relation. 

So–for example–Viscount Castlereagh…yes, his name before he had a title was Robert Stewart.  Absolutely it was.  But no one, not anyone outside of his intimate family relations used his Christian given name–so that’s his wife, his brothers, his father and step-mother, and his uncles (sometimes).  The rest of his colleagues and friends wrote about him as Stewart, or once he had the title, Castlereagh…Or still later, Londonderry.

And I’ll be frank…because this is typical usage, because of the very clear separation of private and public spheres here,  and particularly 200 years ago, to see a contemporary author using his name and calling him Robert when they’re writing about him strikes one as unseemly, disrespectful, inappropriate and well…genuinely squirm-worthy.  Because 200 years ago, to use his Christian name without the benefit of family relations would have implied that he was your inferior and/or subordinate…

So really, it goes beyond incorrect.  It’s actually a bit offensive.  (Perhaps similar to refusing to call a former president Mr. President…)

Which brings me to another thing that is mostly got wrong.  And that’s introductions.  Until, as I say, about five minutes ago, the rule was that one always presented the person of lesser degree to the person with the title. 

It goes like this. 

If I’m walking about a garden with my friend Miss Bosomworthy and I see Lady Strychnine who is also a friend, I say to Lady S:  “Lady Strychnine, will you allow me to present my friend Miss Bosomworthy…”  

What I don’t say or write is “Miss Bosomworthy, may I introduce the Countess Strychnine to you?”  Because that would be an affront. 

And up it goes. 

If I’m strolling down Pall Mall with the Earl of Erewash and Sir Candlestick MacHandsome comes across the street to tell me about a new gun he bought, I say, “Erewash, may I present my friend–and fellow worshipper at the altar of Joseph Manton–Candlestick MacHandsome to you?” 

And Erewash, being an amiable chap, says, “MacHandsome, glad to know you.  It’s not that rifle-barrelled piece with the carved rosewood…”

The lesser degree is always presented to the greater title.  Or…if you wish to be 18th century pedantic, you would ‘name’ the person you’re presenting. 

So it’s, “Lord Buggerluggs, may I name Miss Frostyfanny to you…”  (Buggerluggs leers appreciatively.)  “Why yes,” says he.  “Miss Frostyfanny…Enchanting…truly enchanting…”

Okay?  Have we got that?  No Christian names once the person has left the nursery and lesser or younger person always presented to their elder and better. 

Excellent.  Because this getting it wrong is making my teeth curl.


14 comments on “A word about introductions…or do I mean modes of speech?

  1. Helen Spring says:

    Absolutely right Mm…I am over 70 now and when I was at Grammar school I was always referred to by my surname…Wilkins. Yes, the girls as well. When I started work I was always called ‘Miss Wilkins’ and this went on until well into the 70’s. I still find myself being very careful when I introduce people, even when they aren’t titled or the status isn’t obvious. For example I would always introduce an unmarried friend to the married one, not the other way round. Even now the habit still persists and I can’t help it. This may make me sound very stuffy, but it doesn’t really matter because no-one notices!

  2. cavalrytales says:

    Marvellous info. This is exactly the sort of thing Philistines such as myself need to know, especially since a captain of mine presented his wife to a Lt Colonel BEFORE Sir John Moore. Half-right. I did think twice, but obviously braincell No 2 was as clueless as No 1.

    One thing. I have certain officers call subordinates by their Christian names – in private. I think I can get away with that, but do you think in certain circumstances (eg, if the superior officer wasn’t that well-known to the subordinate) familiarity can be construed a put-down to said subordinate? Like addressing a servant? I know ‘Sir’ was often used the same way.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes, subordinates might very well be addressed by the Christian names–just as underservants would have been–and while it may not have been construed as a put-down, it would certainly be a proclamation of rank–which curiously, they (unless they were well bolshie like Percy Bysshe Shelley or something) didn’t feel was inappropriate. There is very much a feeling amongst the British during the early part of the 19th century that ‘equality’ is a very Republican French thing and therefore to be avoided at all costs.

      But your point about subordinates being addressed by their Christian names by their superiors is exactly why it’s so inappropriate for a contemporary author to called Wellington, Arthur, or Castlereagh, Robert, etc.

  3. Debra Brown says:

    I have a lot of internal conflict on this. It would make boring literary material, however.

    I am giddy over etiquette, class, deferring, etc. It has a good feeling to it. I love to read it and watch it in movies. It is the stuff of great stories. And I love respect for the respectable, for the older person, etc. And I love class even in real life today.

    But when it comes to someone being a better, I cannot help but remember that they often got that way because of some violent act of an ancestor who thus ingratiated himself to a king. So basically, they are better because their greatxxxgrandfather was a killer. It does so little to engender deep respect within my breast.

    If only they were better because of some wonderous act in the past, freeing slaves, saving the poor, rescuing a king’s daughter from a kidnapper. Then several dozen generations of wealth and entitlement would please me more. That I would love.

    Having shot myself in the foot, I do have some questions.

    The cook was called Cook by the family he/she served, right? And Mr. xx or simply Mrs. by the kitchen staff?

    A maid could never be called Miss Surname, right? That was a title, right? And how special did you have to be to be Miss? Could someone better who so wished call you Miss?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      This isn’t meant to be a commentary on whether the honours system was or is a Good Thing. It’s just the way it was. The aristocracy are and were just like everyone else–a combination of utterly brilliant people and complete rotters and everything else in between. Yes, many of them will have gained their titles during earlier eras–most of which were very violent times no matter what one’s surname…

      So onto your questions. Upper servants are called by their employers by their surnames without any prefix or title. So Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice bellows “Hill! Hill!” when she needs her smelling salts, etc. So those servants would include the butler, the steward, the housekeeper and the senior lady’s maid. Also the head groom and the head gardener, depending upon how big the household was.

      The cook was generally given the title of Mrs. whether she was married or not (unless one had a chef); she might equally referred to as Cook. And in the absence of a housekeeper, she might be the one in charge of the female servants of the household and responsible for their morals. Ehem.

      Lower down the pecking order–the footmen, the daughters of the house’s maids, the chambermaids, the parlourmaids, the skullery maid, the boots, the undergrooms–their employers will call them by their Christian names. Although in some households (and the Victorians were always doing this!) they’d always call the footman George for example or the upstairs-maid Rose or Mary or whatever was convenient for them.

      A great deal of our sense of the regimented servants’ hall derives from the Victorians. Prior to that, things were far less structured and rigid. The idea, for example, of the many footmen in powdered wigs and livery is a very French ideal and rarely seen in Britain, except in the houses of royalty or somewhere like Chatsworth.

      In the 18th century and well into the early 19th, livery was rarely worn here or if it was, it was for ‘best’ and/or in the homes of the upper aristocracy. More usually, servants wore serviceable brown or dark green or khaki-coloured clothes which wouldn’t show the dirt and would wear well–these were provided by the employer, the coats often being cut and made by the lady of the house and her maid. And rather than huge numbers of servants in most houses, more commonly, houses had perhaps one female servant and one male servant–she being a maid of all work and a cook and he being the one who tended to bringing in the wood and looked after the garden…

      The other thing is–until the population booms post-Napoleonic wars–servants aren’t as easy as all that to come by and retain. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, they were always, always running away. One common theme in letters and journals of the 18th century is the disasters of one’s cook running away–literally throwing her belongings out the window and scarpering. Sometimes with some of the family silver and often when the army were recruiting locally…There are even stories of them running off in the middle of dinner parties…

      It’s not until after the Napoleonic wars when there are two or three successive population explosions that there are the numbers of people wanting and needing work and hence households employing large numbers of servants.

  4. Elin Gregory says:

    So so nice to see this. I read a lot of historicals written with a contemporary frame of mind where all this kind of thing goes out of the window, Equality at all costs, for instance a mid Victorian piece where a tailor attended a ball thrown for personal friends by an Earl with no explanation how he came to be invited. Tradesmen attending an event like that? I don’t honestly think so.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The Founding Fathers, when thinking up what they would and wouldn’t have in their new country, chose not to have an honours system and not to honour titles…(Though it’s interesting how many French aristocrats they harboured and sucked up to during the days of the French Revolution–but that’s a separate story…) No doubt they had what they considered good reasons.

      However, they do have an honours system of their own and it comes under the heading of public office. If a person becomes a Judge, a Congressman, a Senator or something like that, they are (no matter how briefly they serve) always henceforth entitled to be addressed as that.

      But you’re right. A tailor attending a ball given by an earl? Very unlikely. Even if it were the Harvest supper and ball, given by the earl for his tenants sometime at the end of September. What would a city dweller, like a tailor, be doing there? So what you’re talking about there, is what I refer to as emotional anachronism…

  5. When I worked as an editor for an on-line publisher, I constantly had to correct the American authors writing English historicals that you don’t address someone you hardly know by their first name! Such as five minutes after meeting the earl’s brother, you’re calling him “Stephen!” That’s a no no. Unless you intend to be rude.

  6. Susie says:

    Great post! I have no doubt we Yankees always get this stuff wrong!

  7. […] about a week after I’d posted about how to introduce someone to a chap with a title, I was pointed to the blog of a person of whom […]

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