Closing out the topic of names (at least for now), let’s dig into how they get used.
This is something I think Americans sometimes have trouble grasping, because our society has jettisoned a huge percentage of the etiquette of names. The speed with which we get on a first-name basis with one another is shocking by historical standards — assuming we don’t just start there right out of the gate. (Writing this post, I realized I don’t even know my neighbors’ last names, because we all introduced ourselves with first names only.) In many cases, the only gradation of formality we mark is whether you call someone by their actual name, or by a less formal nickname.
But in many times and places, including various parts of the world today, the given name is reserved for people with whom one is on fairly intimate terms: family members, maybe very close friends. For everyone else, or in non-private situations, you use something else.
In some cases this will still be their name, just a different component thereof. Where there are multiple given names, one may be for private use (for example, a childhood name), the other for public (the name taken at adulthood). If the society has family names, those commonly get used for more formal address. The difference between forms of address can convey a host of social cues that get lost if there’s no etiquette of names: two friends or sweethearts moving to a first-name basis is a watershed of intimacy, while a social superior calling an inferior by their given name can be a way of asserting their power. Meanwhile, a close companion suddenly addressing you by your family name could herald a sudden gulf of distance or hostility, while in a more hierarchical context it might be a way of conveying respect. (In the movie Hidden Figures, it’s a huge moment when the white manager addresses her black employee as Mrs. Vaughan, instead of Dorothy.)
Names often don’t operate on their own, either. In English men are formally addressed as mister/Mr., a term derived from “master.” The female equivalent was “mistress,” but over time it bifurcated into Miss and Mrs., the former indicating an unmarried woman, the latter a married one — a distinction that never got made for men. Ms., derived from the same source, formerly enjoyed scattered usage as a way to address a woman whose marital status was unknown, but now it’s acquired currency as a way of ditching that question entirely. Several European languages follow a similar pattern (señor/señorita/señora; monsieur/mademoiselle/madame; Herr/Fräulein/Frau) — if you happen to know of one that marks the marital status of men, please do share!
Other forms of address differentiate based on rank. As the “master”/”mistress” example implies, even today’s routine etiquette has its origins in those gradations; “sir” and “madam,” which we now deploy to be polite to just about anybody, used to be much more restrictive. (But don’t get confused; “sirrah” was used for inferiors, not equals or superiors.) In Japanese neither marital condition nor gender factor in — men and women alike are -san in basic address — but there’s a host of other honorifics that mark status, like -sama (formerly used for lords; now used much more widely to convey deference), -sensei (not “teacher” so much as a term of respect that gets used for teachers, doctors, and other noteworthy figures), -senpai (a senior student or someone in a comparable position to you), all the positional titles within a company, and more.
Going back to English, there’s a whole complex framework of etiquette around addressing nobility of different ranks: this one is a “my lord” or “your lordship,” but that one is “your Excellency” and this other one is “your Grace.” Ascribed virtues take the place of names. Furthermore, personal names often vanish in that context, replaced instead by estate names; William Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, could be addressed and referred to as Lord Hartington. Even to his good friends, he might just be Hartington, or possibly Cavendish, but rarely if ever William, Will, or Bill — at least to anyone other than his immediate family members.
Speaking of family, sometimes that can also take the place of names. Many cultures around the world eschew the use of personal names within a family, seeing it as more respectful to use kinship terms. In English we do that a little bit; very few of us call our parents by their names, and if a grandparent’s or aunt’s/uncle’s name gets used, it’s usually prefaced by the appropriate term: Grandma Nell, Uncle Fred. But extensions of that principle that sound natural in other languages — younger sister, elder brother, second cousin, etc — sound clunky in English because we don’t have specific terms for those relationships, just adjectives we can tack on when we need to make distinctions. Then there’s Arabic, where an adult may be addressed as the father or mother of their child (Abu Mazen/Umm Mazen). And, of course, kinship terms can be used as honorifics, their literal meaning discarded; in some societies any elderly man or woman is a grandfather or grandmother to a respectful stranger, and sometimes the middle-aged are similarly aunts and uncles.
Several people in the comments on an earlier post shared anecdotes about running into trouble when they tried to replicate this kind of thing in fiction. It’s true, the shifts between names can be difficult for a reader to follow; when I first picked up Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novel The Game of Kings, it took me a while to really internalize that Lymond, Mr. Crawford, Francis, and the Master of Culter were all the same person. (Estate name, family name, given name, and title as heir to the Barony of Culter.) But the flip side is that once I had internalized it, the shifts between those names added power to the story: someone referring to the protagonist as Francis was as good as shooting off a rocket to signal that the character speaking had a particular relationship to him. The intimacy of a nickname (which I understand figures heavily in Russian literature), the formality of a title, the reminders of familial structure encoded in a kinship term — those all add to the story.
So while including them creates a variety of challenges, I’m in favor of more people tackling those challenges, figuring out how to present them so the reader gets trained in the necessary habits of thinking. Even just the basic etiquette of given name vs. family name + title is something we see very little of anymore.