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What's in a word? Quite a lot, I suspect.

Travellers to Francophone and Hispanophone countries will have noticed a superiority of everyday social interactions to those observable in our own country. They retain a slightly formulaic ceremoniousness that is now entirely lacking from our own culture, and that comes (at least to me) as a great relief. If there's one thing that ought to be avoided in casual, everyday encounters, it's saying the first thing that comes into your head.

I attribute the superiority in part to their continued use of the terms Monsieur and Madame and Señor and Señora. It is not affectation, but a deeply ingrained habit. You don't go into a shop in France without saying "Bonjour, monsieur" or "Bonjour, madame".

The other day, I was crossing the street in Paris reading a book, as is my slightly hazardous wont, when a man on a bicycle nearly ran me down. "Attention, monsieur! Attention, monsieur!" he cried, not forgetting his manners even in his irritation. I shouted an appropriate apology after him, rather gratified and reassured by the whole episode. 

Goodness knows what an English cyclist would have shouted in the circumstance: almost certainly something unprintable in a respectable journal.

For some reason we in England can no longer use Sir and Madam in an unstilted way. The last time I called an adult Sir was in addressing a coroner while explaining how a patient came to hang himself. As for Madam, I used it only when angry, for example after a woman launched into me with reflections upon my character when I had inadvertently and unknowingly stood in her way for a few moments. "You have a tongue in your head, Madam, have you not, and could have asked me to move?" In my mouth, then, Madam is a term of abuse.

Why can we not use Sir and Madam? It obviously has something to do with our ideological revulsion against any taint of hierarchy. So in large parts of the country, I am most commonly addressed by spotty young men as "mate". This aggressively levelling and proletarianising mode of address has spread very rapidly. The trouble is that objecting to it (which I have on occasion done) sounds pompous and priggish, in the same way that objecting to obscenity always appears prudish and narrow-minded. There seems to be a Gresham's Law of etiquette: the coarse drives out the refined. The Bolsheviks knew this very well, and welcomed it.

I should like to start a society for the restoration of Sir and Madam in everyday speech. Unfortunately, all the causes I espouse are lost.

Eileen P.
May 23rd, 2012
7:05 PM
Similarly, in the U.S., I object to the "ms"tification of every woman, whether she wants it or not. I am not a Ms. I will not be addressed by the title chosen for me by Gloria Steinem. I always (if there is a choice) choose the title Miss on forms, and use Miss in written communications, surrounded by parentheses, in my closing. - Miss P.

Sarah P
December 30th, 2009
2:12 PM
Strange, because I have always admired the British media's habit to call everyone Mr and Mrs. Our (Belgian) newspapers just call everyone by their last name.

Peter from Maidstone
November 10th, 2009
8:11 AM
Dear sir, I am not sure it is true. I grew up calling all of my teachers 'sir', and I finished school in 1981. Even today I belong to a Christian community where the priest is always addressed as 'Father', and our bishop as 'Your Grace'. In my experience, many British people find such an expression of order something which is beneficial and not revolting. I think it is much more to do with a diminishing of respect for one another. This is more than simply a fact of the changing character of language, and could possibly be reversed by people showing respect in forms of address. I would certainly be interested in a society with the aim of restoring respect in conversation and I do not think it would be a lost cause. We have too easily assumed a first-name relationship with each other, even those who are superior to us in a variety of contexts, or have offered such a relationship as a means of showing how modern we are. But something is lost, not a fixed hierarchy, but respect for office and position.

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