sir


sir
   From a historical point of view, ‘sir’ is a shortened form of ‘sire’, arising from the unstressed pronunciation of that word when placed before a man’s name to indicate that he was a baronet or a knight. Modern holders of those ranks are still addressed as ‘Sir John’, ‘Sir Thomas’, etc. In former times ‘sir’ was used fairly frequently to form nonce names of the ‘Sir Prudence’, ‘Sir Smug’ type. ‘Mr’ is normally used for this purpose in modern times.
   In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially, a priest could have been addressed as ‘Sir’ + first name, a usage long obsolete. Also obsolete is the custom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at some universities, of addressing a Bachelor of Arts as ‘Sir’ + last name.
   These various vocative usages led to ‘sir’ becoming a common prefix in expressions like: sir knight, sir clerk, sir page, sir monk, etc. Some of these instances must have been ironic, and some appear to be examples of inverse address, discussed under Sirrah.
   By the fourteenth century it was already possible to address any man who was socially superior to the speaker as ‘sir’. By the eighteenth century it had become the normal term of address between male equals if they were middle or upper-class speakers. Edna Ferber, in Showboat, remarks in passing that the gentlemen gamblers on board always ‘addressed each other as “sir”’.
   It is not clear when ‘Dear Sir’ became the purely conventional opening for a letter to an unknown man, but there was presumably the thought in the minds of early writers that no offence would be caused by using ‘sir’ to someone not strictly entitled to be so addressed, though its omission might cause offence. In modern times letters addressed to strangers about whom nothing is known save that they are academic are frequently headed ‘Dear Doctor’ + last name for similar reasons. In general terms, then, ‘sir’ has long been perceived as a term of respect, used by a speaker who acknowledges the seniority of social or professional rank of the person being addressed. It is also long-established as a conventional term which is to be used in a number of situations. One such is in a school, where in Britain, at least, the use of ‘sir’ to any school-master by a pupil is often enforced, especially when the pupil is aged less than sixteen.
   In Goodbar to All That, Robert Graves says: ‘A preparatory schoolboy, when caught off his guard, will call his mother “Please, matron,” and always address any male relative or friend of the family as “Sir”, like a master.’ This is a reference to a boarding school environment of middle-class children, and refers also to school life in the early part of the present century, but Graves was certainly reporting on personal experience.
   The reaction of the ‘male relatives and friends of the family’ to being called ‘sir’ would presumably have varied. Some fathers, especially, would have accepted it as their due, as is still the case in some present-day families. A young American informant in 1988 told the author that she normally addressed her parents as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, but added hastily that she lived in the Mid-west, and that her family was perhaps a little old-fashioned.
   In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird occurs: ‘“What are you doing with those scissors, then?” “Nothing.” “Nothing what?” said Atticus. “Nothing, sir.”’ This is a conversation between an American boy and his lawyer father in fairly recent times. E.M.Forster, in Howard’s End, says of Mr Wilcox that ‘he liked being called sir’ by his son. The son in this case also uses ‘Pater’ on occasion. An adult girl in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey addresses her father as ‘sir’.
   The justification for all this is to be found in the old use of ‘sire’ for a parent. We now speak only of male animals siring young, but in former use people talked of their ‘sire’, meaning their father, and their ‘grandsire’, their grandfather.
   Justified or not, some fathers would seem to dislike being called ‘sir’. In Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis, a father who is so addressed by his son says: ‘Don’t call me “sir” - I’m still under age for it - I hope!’
   The man concerned is aged fifty. This objection to ‘sir’ because of its age implication is shared by other men. Tamahine, by Thelma Niklaus, has: ‘“How do you do, sir?” Gerald repressed a flicker of distress at a mode of address that put him among the elderly and respectable.’
   Henry’s War, by Jeremy Brooks, has: ‘“Sorry, sir!” cried a spindle-legged urchin.…So, he was “sir” now: one of them’ In The Business of Loving, by Godfrey Smith, a man says: ‘For heaven’s sake don’t call me sir, it makes me feel so old.’ Graham Greene, in The Heart of the Matter, has: ‘Why do you always call me sir, Wilson? You are not in the police force. It makes me feel very old.’ In Theirs was the Kingdom, by R.F.Delderfield, a young man says to a boy of thirteen, who is being polite: ‘Why do you address me as “sir”?’ I suppose because you’re older,’ says the boy. ‘Isn’t it the polite thing to do to someone a lot older?’ ‘Not where I come from,’ says the young man, grimly. He is a Welshman.
   Another reason for objecting to the term is offered by a speaker in Thanksgiving, by Robert Jordan, when a young man says ‘I understand, sir.’ ‘Stop that! Don’t mind “sir” from an older man. Can’t stand it from you youngsters. Always sounds patronizing even if you don’t intend it to. I’m “Rollie” to my intimates, “Thorny” to my friends, “Mr Thornton” to others and “sir” to the help.’
   This kind of comment seems rather unfair to polite young English schoolboys and young American men who are acting as they have been taught to do, and an educated person should be able to distinguish between polite motivation and sneering patronage, or possibly cringing flattery. Different views are expressed on the subject by novelists and a sociologist, the first of whom, Zoe Fairbairns, says in Down:’ “Excuse me, sir, you couldn’t spare me a cigarette, I suppose, could you?” That “sir” did the trick. I had seen tramps go up to ordinary people with “Gottafagmate?” and it usually got them exactly nowhere.’ Alan Sillitoe, in A Tree on Fire, presents a contrary view:
   An attendant pointed to his washed and fuelled car. It disgusted him the way they lavished so many ‘sirs’. Such treatment turned him sour - which seemed to increase their deference. He once told an attendant not to call him sir, but from then on he ceased to be helpful, and actually disliked him for reminding him of his civility.
   Richard Hoggart, in The Uses of Literacy, also puts the view of a more cynical male, referring to the peculiarly mean form of trickery which goes with some forms of working-class deference, the kind of obvious ‘fiddling’ of someone from another class which accompanies an over-readiness to say ‘sir’, but assumes, in the very obviousness with which it is practised, that it is all a contemptuous game, that one can rely on the middleclass distaste for a scene to allow one to cheat easily. Many men, then, do not appreciate being called ‘sir’. They are embanassed by the implied deference and insulted by the implication that they are of great age.
   This only applies, normally, outside those environments within which the use of ‘sir’ is a matter of convention, or rule. A shop assistant using ‘sir’ to a customer, for example, is simply signalling verbally that he is an employee, and that it is his job to help. So is a steward on board a passenger liner, yet someone from a rural area, of humble origins, may find the usage strange. ‘Geordie laughed and laughed. He had an infectious laugh, so Rawlins began too. “What’s up?” he asked. “It’s that wee chap calling me sir,” said Geordie. “Who does he think I am, Andrew Carnegie?”’ (Geordie, David Walker).
   In military circles, the use of ‘sir’ is required by military law to maintain a hierarchy which must always be clear to those who are part of it. There is no question in such circumstances of the speaker being able to choose from a range of possible vocatives and decide whether or not to use ‘sir’. The term is to be used because of the respective ranks of speaker and hearer, or it isn’t. Having said that, service personnel who are friendly may privately decide to dispense with the formality when they are alone, in which case the senior officer will say something to that effect. In the Biggles books of Captain W. E.Johns, the hero at one point says: ‘Never mind the “sir” when you’re on the tarmac.’ This is to some newcomers who have just joined the squadron. ‘My name is Rupert. For God’s sake call me that and drop this sir crap,’ says an English army officer to his junior in The Business of Loving, by Godfrey Smith.
   By contrast, in Days of Hope, by Jim Allen, a conscientious objector who has been forced to join the army is told by an officer: ‘You’re in the army now whether you like it or not, and you’ll address all officers as sir!’ In Bhowani Junction, by John Masters, another junior officer is told: ‘In this regiment subalterns address field officers as “Sir”, not “Major”, or “Colonel”, or even “Chief”. You are not in the Royal Army Pay Corps, unfortunately.’
   It is sometimes said that women dislike being obliged to call a man ‘sir’, though they obviously accept the convention if they join one of the armed services or a quasi-military service such as the police force. In the latter organization they would be obliged to use ‘sir’ both to superiors within the force and to members of the public who looked as if they were reasonably respectable men. Those women who do object to using the term should take a leaf out of Mrs Sparsit’s book. In Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, she acts as a domestic servant to Mr Bounderby and addresses him as ‘sir’, but we are told that ‘Mrs Sparsit’s “sir” in addressing Mr Bounderby was a word of ceremony, rather extracting consideration for herself in the use, than honouring him.’
   Another noticeable use of ‘sir’ by a woman speaker in literature is in Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray. Becky Sharp is determined to ingratiate herself with the Sedley family when she goes to stay with them, not only with the family but their servants. She flatters the house-keeper by showing deep interest in the raspberry jam she is making, and ‘persisted in calling Sambo “Sir” and “Mr Sambo”, to the delight of that attendant’ She does this in private, of course, being far too astute to do so in front of the family or other servants. Becky Sharp is not quite in the same category as one of the ‘poor relations’, described by Charles Lamb in his essay on that topic. A poor relation embarrasses everyone, says Lamb, by calling the servant ‘sir’.
   We can sum up the main uses of ‘sir’ in modern times by saying that it is used professionally by convention or rule, or as a freely chosen term of politeness, usually by a younger man to an older, especially if the speaker is an American of good education or family.
   British speakers do not address a strange man in the street, from whom they are going to ask directions, as ‘sir’. Americans are likely to do so if the man being addressed is of a certain age and apparently middle class. Hence the passage in The Magic Army, by Leslie Thomas, when an American addresses an English army officer as ‘sir’. ‘Bryant did not know whether the man had recognized him as an officer or whether it was merely the general American usage.’
   In modern times sir is addressed to males only, with ‘gentlemen’ acting as its normal plural. ‘Sirs’ would be used in a vocative expression where ‘sirs’ was the head-word. as in ‘young sirs’. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘sir’ was regularly, if infrequently, used to women in certain English dialects, as the quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary reveal. Today it seems to be Marcie, in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip, who uniquely addresses ‘sir’ to a girl.
   Finally, as an indication of how frequently ‘sir’ is used as a vocative in modern times, it occurred 1362 times in fifty British novels chosen at random. Several of these had a military setting, it is true, and other professional uses - e.g. 74 instances in Doctor at Sea, by Richard Gordon, mainly by stewards to passengers and crew, helped to expand the numbers. ‘Sir’ was the second most frequently used vocative in that particular corpus, only first names being more frequently used. Nearly all occurrences of ‘sir’, incidentally, are vocative, though it can occur nonvocatively in a sentence like ‘Sir’s henchman invited me for a drink’, which is in Festival, by N.J.Crisp. English schoolchildren regularly say things like ‘Sir said I could do that’.
   See also sirrah, sire.
   ‘Sir’ also occurs in variant spellings such as ‘sair’, ‘sah’, ‘sorr’, indicating dialectal and sub-standard pronunciations.

A dictionary of epithets and terms of address . . 2015.

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